Theories about afterlife

For believers, evidences for life beyond death comes from several sources. There are cases of haunting and apparitions, mediumistic communications and automatic writings, possessions, incidences of child prodigies, and ostensible reincarnation data. A large amount of this evidence was gathered during the heyday of spiritualism in the nineteenth century, and is recorded in The Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death by F. W. H. Myers.

Gustav Theodore Fechner

The great psychophysicist Gustav Theodore Fechner — one of the foremost instigators of modern, scientific psychology — wrote extensive speculations in a work called the Book of Life After Death which G. Stanley Hall describes thus: 

How now do the dead live on? First and chiefly in us. Fechner takes his leading concept from the mystic way in which Christ lives in his followers, who are members of his body and branches of his vine. To this larger life of his in the Church, his earthly career is only a grain of mustard seed. Gloriously his soul has gone marching on. Just so the dead press in upon us, yearning to add their strength to ours, for thus they not merely live, but grow. New impulsions and sudden insights in us are inspirations from them. Not only do the great and good dead influence and pervade us all the time, but we are exposed also to the bad. Many of them are always bad, and so if our will is weak and our personality unorganized, they may dominate us. Their visitation is insistent. They do not crave incarnation in the flesh, like Plato’s spirits, but in our moral life, that therein they may be made perfect. We all have in us sparks from the lives of Luther, Goethe, Napoleon, etc., who think and act in us “no longer restrained by the limitations of the body, but poured forth upon the world which in their lifetime they moulded, gladdened, swayed, and by their personality they now supply us with influences which we never discern as coming from them.” Each great dead soul extends itself into man and unites them in a spiritual organism. Thus, the dead converse wit each other in us. They also fight the good and bad in each other in us, causing strife in our souls…. 

There is, however, a higher soul in which we and all things live, move, and have our being, and in which and only in which spirits are real. We are, in fact, what we have become. The brain is a kind of seed which decays that the soul may live. The individual soul may mount on the collective souls of the dead as a sparrow is carried up on an eagle’s back to heights it never could attain, but, when there, can fly off and even a little higher. At death the soul seems to drop below a threshold and the spark of consciousness might be conceived to go out but for the fact that the soul is not projected into an empty world but into one where it incessantly meets varying resistance that keep personality above the point of submergence or any other extinction without appeal to the conservation of energy. Just as attention moves about from point to point within the body, so after death the soul moves around the world. 

When the phenomena of spiritualism became popular in mid-nineteenth century Europe and America, Fechner sat with zeal at a number of seances. He was one of the few men of his age who, while not detecting trickery, had the depth of wisdom with which to incorporate but also transcend the sensationalism and trivia of the popular spiritualist impulse.


Allan Kardec

 From the ranks of the spiritualists investigations were also conducted, although along somewhat different lines than the experimental work of the scientists. The former attempted to describe the world according to the teachings of the spirits themselves. This theorization of spiritualism was mainly due to L. H. D. Rivail (1803-1869) a doctor of medicine who became celebrated under the pseudonym Allan Kardec. 

Kardec’s theories were simple enough: After death the soul becomes a spirit and seeks reincarnation, which, as Pythagoras taught, is the destiny of all human souls; spirits know the past, present, and future; sometimes they can materialize and act on matter. We should let ourselves be guided by good spirits, Kardec maintained, and refuse to listen to bad spirits. 

Kardec wrote many books which achieved enormous popularity in his own lifetime. His works also spread to Brazil, where he still has a huge following, and where postage stamps were recently issued in his honor. His intellectual energy certainly deserves admiration.

However, he built his theory on the untenable hypothesis that mediums, embodying a so-called spirit, are never mistaken, unless their utterances are prompted by evil spirits. This notion does not of course, take into account the possibilities of suggestion, multiple personality, or unconscious influences which were quickly developed as alternative hypotheses to outright fraud by skeptical scientific investigators such as Michael Faraday. 

Founding of the Society for Psychical Research 

Sir William F. Barrett, a professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, had been conducting experiments in the 1880s testing the notion of thought-transference. Barrett conceived of the idea of forming an organization of spiritualists, scientists, and scholars who would join forces in a dispassionate investigation of psychical phenomena. F.W.H. Myers, Edmund Gurney and Henry Sidgewick attended a conference in London that Barrett convened, and the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was created with Sidgewick, who had a reputation as an impartial scholar, accepting the first presidency. 

The Society set up six working committees, each with a specific domain for exploration: 

  1. An examination of the nature and extent of any influence which may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart from any generally recognized mode of perception.
  2. The study of hypnotism, and the forms of so-called mesmeric trance, with its alleged insensibility to pain; clairvoyance and other allied phenomena.
  3. A critical revision of Reichenbach’s researches with certain organizations called “sensitive,” and an inquiry whether such organizations possess any power of perception beyond a highly exalted sensibility of the recognized sensory organs.
  4. A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong testimony, regarding apparitions at the moment of death, or otherwise, or regarding disturbances in houses reputed to be haunted.
  5. An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly called spiritualistic; with an attempt to discover their causes and general laws.
  6. The collection and collation of existing materials bearing on the history of these subjects.

The great American psychologist, William James, met Gurney in England in 1882 and immediately they struck up a close friendship. Later James also became a close friend of Myers. In 1884, Barrett toured the United States and succeeded in arousing the interest of American scholars in forming a similar society, which was established in 1885, and in which William James took an active role. The American Society for Psychical Research constituted the first organized effort for experimental psychological research in the United States. For a period of many years, before the ascendancy of the German experimental approach of Wilhelm Wundt, psychology in the United States was equated with the efforts of psychical research. .

Many levels of the human personality clearly exist and are still generally unexplored and untapped. Yet a number of cases can be cited where even such explanations do not account for all the observed phenomena.

More about ghosts and revenants


Spiritualism as a social movement apparently began in the small New York town of Hydesville in March of 1848, where several months earlier, the Fox family had taken over an old farmhouse about which the previous tenants had complained of strange noises. The Foxes themselves soon noticed unusual rapping sounds that occurred in the night frightening the two younger daughters, Margaret and Kate, who then insisted on sleeping with their parents. On the fateful evening of March 31, the youngest daughter Kate playfully challenged the raps to repeat the snapping of her fingers. Her challenge was answered. Within hours many of the neighbors were brought over to the house to witness the uncanny demonstration. 

By asking the sounds be repeated twice for a negative answer and only once for an affirmative, the people assembled were soon able to carry on a `(!logue with the rapping — which had revealed itself to apparently be coming from a spirit source. One of the neighbors, Deusler, suggested naming the letters of the alphabet and having the spirit rap when they reached certain letters in order to spell out letters and sentences. In this way the spirit revealed himself to have been a travelling peddler who was murdered in the house by a previous owner and buried in the cellar. Digging commenced, however a high water level prevented any immediate discoveries. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of neighbors continued visiting the Fox house, day and night, listening to the spirit’s rapping. They also formed an investigation committee to take testimony. The case was even studied by the Honorable Robert Dale Owen, a member of the U. S. Congress, and a founder of the Smithsonian Institute. In the summer of 1848, more digging unearthed human teeth, some fragments of bone and some human hair. 

While the testimony is ambiguous, some neighbors reported that the raps continued in the Fox house even when family members were not present. However, it became apparent that this form of mediumship centered on the Fox sisters, though it soon spread to many other people as well. 

Fifty-six years later in 1904, the gradual disintegration of one of the cellar walls of the Fox house exposed to view an entire human skeleton. 

Other mediums, using the alphabet method, also claimed to be in contact with the spirits of the deceased. Their messages were generally not reliable however. It seems that for every apparently genuine medium there were many deluded or phony imitators. 

During November 1849, the Spiritualists held their first public meeting in the largest hall available in Rochester, N.Y. Three different citizen’s committees in Rochester were invited to investigate the Fox sisters. All three made favorable reports indicating that the sounds heard were not produced by ventriloquism or machinery. The public was outraged at these reports. A riot resulted and the girls had to be smuggled away from an angry crowd. 

The Fox sisters made a career of their mediumship. They toured the country under the auspices of the showman, P. T. Barnum. While receiving the sympathetic attention of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, who later became a candidate for the U.S. presidency, the sisters remained a center of controversy. In 1871, Charles F. Livermore, a prominent New York banker, sent Kate Fox to England in gratitude for the consolation he had received through her powers.104 At that time she was examined by the physicist Sir William Crookes, who later received the Nobel prize for his discovery of thalium:

 For several months I have enjoyed the almost unlimited opportunity of testing the various phenomena occurring in the presence of this lady, and I especially examined the phenomena of these sounds. With mediums, generally, it is necessary to sit for a formal seance before anything is heard; but in the case of Miss Fox it seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner I have heard them in a living tree — on a sheet of glass — on a stretched iron wire — on a stretched membrane — a tambourine — on the roof of a cab — and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary; I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, etc., when the medium’s hands and feet were held when she was standing on a chair when she was suspended in a swing from the ceiling — when she was enclosed in a wire cage — and when she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have heard them on a glass hermonicon — I have felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner. With a full knowledge of the numerous theories which have been started, chiefly in America, to explain these sounds, I have tested them in every way that I could devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means. 

The main argument used by skeptics to discredit the Fox sisters was that they created the rapping sounds themselves by cracking the bones in their toes and knuckles. This hypothesis, however, does not seem sufficient to explain the different kinds of sounds that appeared, their loudness, the fact that they often occurred in arpeggios and cadenzas, and the fact that they seemed to emanate from different places. 

Nevertheless, in 1888, Margaret Fox made a public statement denouncing the spiritualists, claiming that she had made the noises by cracking her toes. Kate, who was with her at the time remained silent, as if in agreement. The following year, however, Margaret recanted, saying she had fallen under the influence of people who were inimical to spiritualism and who had offered her money. Both sisters were alcoholics at this time. At no time in their careers were they actually detected in a fraudulent act. 

Crookes also recorded an experience of direct writing with Ms. Fox: 

A luminous hand came down from the upper part of the room, and after hovering near me for a few seconds, took the pencil from my hand, rapidly wrote on a sheet of paper, threw the pencil down, and then rose up over our heads, gradually fading into darkness.

Frederick Myers

Many other phenomena were explored by the SPR during its early years. The major attempt to synthesize the great mass of data which had been gathered was undertaken by Frederick Myers and published in 1903 after his death in a work called The Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death.

Myers was widely read in all the fields of knowledge of his day. His work is a testimony to his wide-reaching and poetical mind and his deep interest in the work of the psychoanalysts. He was, in fact, the first writer to introduce the works of Freud to the British public, in 1893. His book is still regarded by many as the most important single work in the history of psychical research. Even those who do not accept his hypothesis of the survival of the soul are indebted to his explorations of the unconscious and subliminal regions of the personality. 

Myers maintained that the human personality was composed of two active coherent streams of thoughts and feelings. Those lying above the ordinary threshold of consciousness were considered supraliminal while those that remain submerged beneath consciousness are subliminal. The evidence for the existence of this subliminal self derives from such phenomena as automatic writing, multiple personalities, dreams, and hypnosis. These phenomena all expose deeper layers of the personality that normally remain unseen. In many cases the deeper layers seem autonomous and independent of the supraliminal self. For example, certain memories are uncovered through hypnosis and dreams which are normally inaccessible to the conscious mind. Or in the case of certain people of genius, complete works of art will emerge from dreams. Automatic writers can sometimes maintain two conversations at once, each unaware of the other one. 

Myers examined all of these phenomena carefully and felt that they were part of a continuum ranging from unusual personality manifestations to telepathic communications, traveling clairvoyance, possession by spirits, and actual survival of the subliminal layers of personality after the death of the body. He felt each experience in this spectrum was integrally related to the other states of being. This insight was his deepest theoretical penetration into the roots of consciousness. 

Myers began his analysis by looking at the ways in which the personality was known to disintegrate. Insistent ideas, obsessing thoughts and forgotten terrors lead up to hysterical neuroses in which the subliminal mind takes over certain body functions from the supraliminal. Gradually these maladies merge with cases of multiple personalities. He noted the subliminal personalities often represented an improvement over the normal conscious self, and suggested that:

As the hysteric stands in relation to ordinary men, so do we ordinary men stand in relation to a not impossible ideal of sanity and integration.

Thus from the disintegrated personality which reveals some of the negative aspects of the subliminal self, Myers moved naturally to look at people of genius, within whom, according to Myers, “some rivulet is drawn into supraliminal life from the undercurrent stream.” He discussed mathematical prodigies and musicians whose works spring fully formed into their consciousness. Of particular interest was Robert Louis Stevenson who deliberately used his dream life in order to experiment with different dramatizations of his stories. Not mentioned by Myers, but certainly applicable here, would be the incredible inventions which entered the minds of Thomas Edison (himself a spiritualist) and Nicola Tesla, whose genius led him to develop alternating current and many modern electrical appliances. Myers did cite the poet Wordsworth as being particularly sensitive to this aspect of the creative process, which he described in “The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind:”

That awful power rose from the mind’s abyss,

Like an unfathomed vapor that enwraps,

At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;

Halted without an effort to break through;

But to my conscious soul I now can say

“I recognize thy glory;” in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

In addition to people of genius, Myers included saintly men and women whose lives have absorbed “strength and grace from an accessible and inexhaustible source.” 

From neurosis, genius and sainthood Myers moved to a state of being all individuals experience — sleep, which he describes as the abeyance of the supraliminal life and the liberation of the subliminal. The powers of visualization, for instance, are heightened during the hypnogogic state as one passes into sleep and in the hypnopompic state as the dream lingers into waking consciousness. Myers also discerned the heightened powers of memory and reason that occur in some dreams, and further cases of clairvoyance and telepathy in dreams. And he cited cases of what seem to be “psychical invasions” in dreams by spirits of both living and departed persons. He concluded by suggesting that sleep is every person’s gate to the “spiritual world.” 

Hypnosis was described as the experimental exploration of the sleep phase of human personality. The unusual phenomena that occur in hypnosis were ascribed to the power of the subliminal self that is appealed to in such states. The subliminal self appears to enjoy greater control over the body than the supraliminal. Myers also pointed out the relationship of hypnosis to other phenomena such as faith healing, the miraculous cures at Lourdes, and the use of magical charms. He emphasized the experimental work done in telepathic hypnotic induction at a distance as well as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition observed in the hypnotized subject.

From hypnosis Myers moved to visual and auditory hallucinations psychical researchers have labeled sensory automatisms. When hearing a sound or seeing a color or form carries with it an association of images from another sense, this process is within the brain and is termed entencephalic. The stages leading from such percepts to ordinary vision include entoptic impressions due to stimuli from the optic nerve or eye and after-images which are formed in the retina. Stages leading further inward from entencephalic vision include memory images, dreams, images of the imagination and hallucinations. Many hallucinations cited were shown to contain information that was later verified. Other hallucinations clearly seemed to hold positive benefits for the personality and were not associated in any way with disease. Crystal gazing is a possible positive use of the mind’s ability to hallucinate. Other hallucinations include the phantasms of the living and the dead which we have already discussed. 

From sensory automatisms Myers moved to motor automatisms — including automatic writing and speaking in tongues. Most of these phenomena can be attributed to the subliminal mind within the automatist’s own brain. Other cases lead one to suspect telepathy and possible communication from deceased spirits. There are cases of automatic writing, for example, in which the handwriting of a deceased person is alleged. A further development of this would be possession by another personality other than the subliminal self. However, it is very difficult to distinguish cases of spirit possession from cases of multiple personality. The personal identity of such a spirit must be clearly distinguished by its memory and its character. Yet this is a phenomena common to all religious traditions that has also been observed at least once, Myers felt, by SPR researchers. He noted that such possession did not appear to have an injurious effect on the medium. 

It is on the basis of this continuum of experiences that Myers asserted the subliminal self is able to operate free from the brain in ways that modify both space and time as they appear to the supraliminal self. Just as the subliminal self is able to control physiological functions of the brain and body, as best exemplified through hypnotic experiments, so is it able to exert force on other physical objects accounting for levitations, materializations, spirit rapping, etc. 


  • E. A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead. New York: Dover, 1967, pp. lviii-lxx. A classic. 
  • E. A. Wallis Budge, Osiris: the Egyptian Religion of Resurrection. New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1961. First published in 1911. 
  • W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. London: Oxford University Press, 1960. The text contains commentaries by Carl Jung, Lama Anagarika Govinda, & Sir John Woodroffe. 
  • Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert & Ralph Metzner, The Psychedelic Experience.
  • W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibet’s Great Yogi, Milarepa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.
  • Sir William Crookes, “Notes of an Inquiry into the Phenomena called Spiritual,” in R. G. Medhurst (ed.), Crookes and the Spirit World. New York: Taplinger, 1972. This volume contains descriptions of Crookes’ experiments as well as his replies to his critics.
  • Nandor Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthur’s Press, 1933, p. 95. Crookes is quoted by Fodor.
  • Charles Richet, Thirty Years of Psychical Research, trans. by Stanley de Brath. New York: Macmillan, 1923.
  • Pedro McGregor, The Moon and Two Mountains. London: Souvenir Press, 1966. A first-hand account of spiritualism in Brazil.
  • F. W. H. Myers, The Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954, p. xxix. Originally published in 1903, this book is possibly the greatest classic of psychical research.
  • Edmund Gurney, F. W. H. Myers & Frank Podmore, Phantasms of the Living. Gainesville, Florida: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1970, pp. 163-164. This passage is quoted in Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research, pp. 165-166.
  • “Notes on the Evidence Collected by the Society for Phantasms of the Dead,” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, IIII, 1885, pp. 69-150. This information is cited in Gauld, op. cit.
  • G. N. M. Tyrrell, Apparitions. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1961, pp. 69-70. Originally published in 1953.
  • Karlis Osis, Deathbed Observations by Physicians and Nurses. New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 1961.
  • Raymond Moody, Life After Life (#W417), an InnerWork videotape available from Thinking Allowed Productions, 2560 9th Street, # 123, Berkeley, CA 94710.
  • Nandor Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London: Arthur’s Press, 1933, pp. 71-72.
  • G. N. M. Tyrrell, Science and Psychical Phenomena. New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1961, pp. 175-179. The actual quote is from William James in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 28, pp. 117-121.
  • Sir Oliver Lodge, Raymond or Life and Death. New York: George H. Doran, 1916, p. 90.
  • Rosalind Heywood, Beyond the Reach of Sense. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974, p. 118. A researcher as well as a sensitive, Heywood was one of the grand ladies of psychical research.
  •  J. Head & S. L. Cranston (eds.), Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery. New York: Julian Press, 1977.
  • Jonathan Venn, “Hypnosis and the Reincarnation Hypothesis: A Critical Review and Intensive Case Study,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, October 1986, 80(4), 409-426.
  • Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. New York: American Society for Psychical Research, 1966.
  • Ian Stevenson, “Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case,” Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 31, February 1974