On a spring day last year, three months after the death of my younger son, Max, I opened my front door and saw a butterfly resting on the steps—an Eastern tiger swallowtail, I later determined, a species native to the Northeast but not one I remembered seeing before in the middle of Brooklyn. The date stuck in my mind because, as it happens, it was also my birthday. The butterfly, with its otherworldly beauty and silence, is, of course, a common metaphor for the soul. Its emergence from entombment as a chrysalis may have inspired ideas about human resurrection. In the newsletter of the Compassionate Friends, a support group for bereaved parents, the sudden appearance of butterflies (and birds, cloud formations, and particular songs on the radio) is sometimes cited as evidence of communication from beyond the grave. So let me be clear about where I stand: not only do I not believe it, but I can't understand why anyone would take comfort from it. I would hate to think of Max, with his fierce intelligence and tenacity, reduced to sending mute signals by way of insects.
I was put in mind of this by reading a new book by Dinesh D'Souza, provocatively titled Life After Death: The Evidence, and I can't help wondering what D'Souza, a well-known conservative political commentator starting a second career as a Christian apologist, would make of my experience. To be consistent, he would have to say nothing at all: it is what scientists call anecdotal evidence, useless by definition, and D'Souza's book attempts to build a case on unshakable scientific grounds for the survival of consciousness beyond death. Ghosts, mediums, and miraculous cures by the intercession of saints play no role in his argument, which draws instead on quantum mechanics, neuroscience, and moral philosophy. Life After Death, along with other recent books including mathematician David Berlinski's The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, physicist Frank J. Tripler's The Physics of Christianity, and The Language of God by the director of the National Institutes of Health, the geneticist Francis S. Collins, constitutes an effort by believers to confront the so-called new atheism on its own intellectual turf, without benefit of scripture or revelation. D'Souza, who likens this to fighting with one hand tied behind his back, is a frequent debating opponent of prominent atheists including Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith). He regards the emergence of such enemies as a God-given opportunity to bring Christian apologetics into the new century. "C. S. Lewis addressed issues from his own era, such as the Holocaust," D'Souza notes, "but today we have new questions—about Darwin, brain science, modern physics, and Islamic terrorism. The new atheists have done believers a favor by putting the issue of faith on the agenda. If I'd written this book 10 years ago, people would have asked, 'why?' "
Some people may still ask. D'Souza takes it as given that we are all consumed with wondering what will happen to us after death, the way all Europeans were in medieval times, and D'Souza himself still is. Believers, of course, need no convincing on the subject of life after death, so D'Souza must address himself to skeptics, who presumably have made their peace with the expectation of personal annihilation. Skeptics may object to D'Souza's mode of argument, which is to state a proposition, present the evidence for both sides with an elaborate if spurious show of impartiality, and proceed briskly to the conclusion that his own preference is obviously the winner. But on some level, D'Souza believes, even skeptics would like to be convinced.
The "evidence," of necessity, is indirect: D'Souza doesn't claim to have communicated with anyone who has died, and he doesn't expect to. Instead, he looks to the human heart, and finds therein a universal moral code underlying acts of self-sacrifice and charity that appear to run counter to the Darwinian imperative to outcompete thy neighbor. This is a time-honored argument for the existence of a God who created human beings in his image and imbued them with a moral sense, as well as the free will to follow, or ignore, it. Berlinski uses the argument in his book, and Collins credits it with turning him from atheism to evangelical Christianity. (D'Souza acknowledges that the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins has offered an evolutionary explanation for human goodness, but he doesn't buy it.) In a Jesuitical display that does credit to his reputation as "an Indian William F. Buckley Jr.," D'Souza turns to his advantage one of the atheists' favorite arguments, God's apparent tolerance for human suffering. Precisely because evil so often goes unpunished in this world, he asserts, the moral code must reflect another reality, in which souls are judged, punished, or rewarded after death. "The postulate of an afterlife enables us to make sense of this life," he writes. It worked for Dante, didn't it?
And if that's not enough to convince you, D'Souza provides a checklist of benefits from believing in life after death: it keeps us honest, gives our lives "a sense of hope and purpose"—and "surveys show" that believers have better sex. It provides "a mechanism to teach our children right from wrong"—a mechanism that those who have been subjected to it tend to describe as a neurotic lifelong fear of going to Hell. And if your smart-alecky kid, full of all that Galileo stuff they get in school nowadays, should ask just where this Judgment business takes place, D'Souza provides you with a response. It happens in the multiverse, the infinitely multiplying complex of worlds predicted by some versions of quantum theory. In the multiverse, physical laws can take on different values, and matter itself may have a different form, so "there is nothing in physics to contradict the idea that we can live beyond death in other realms with bodies that are unlike the bodies we now possess."
Admittedly, the multiverse, although a perfectly respectable concept in theoretical physics, is supported by no more empirical evidence than the soul itself. Afterlife studies, to coin a phrase, has been an empty field, at least until now. The AWARE study ("Awareness During Resuscitation") is looking at "near-death experiences" (NDEs)—the recollections of people who were revived after clinical death, defined as the absence of heartbeat and the cessation of measurable electrical activity in the brain. People with NDEs sometimes report out-of-body experiences, such as looking down on themselves from above and witnessing their own resuscitations. Obviously, if this is actually taking place—and not, say, a composite reconstruction of memories drawn from years of ER episodes—then the threshold requirement for life after death has been met: the separation of consciousness from the physical brain. "Near-death experiences show that clinical death may not be the end," D'Souza writes. Thus they support his larger point, that "neuroscience reveals that the mind cannot be reduced to the brain … consciousness and free will … seem to operate outside the laws of nature, and therefore are not subject to the laws governing the mortality of the body." The latter assertion has been at the crux of Western philosophy since Plato, but it's taken until now to devise an empirical test for it. In the AWARE study, randomly generated images will be projected in the rooms of critically ill patients, in locations where they can be viewed only from above—by someone having an out-of-body experience, for instance. If patients who survive NDEs can identify these images subsequently—well, not to overdramatize, but several centuries of materialism in the natural sciences will have to be rewritten. The director of AWARE is Dr. Sam Parnia, a fellow at Weill Cornell Medical Center. He told NEWSWEEK that researchers at 20 hospitals have identified about 600 subjects for interviews. Parnia expects to publish his results in 2010.
I await Parnia's paper eagerly, although I can't imagine it will help fill the hole in my life left by the death of my son. Is there comfort in the idea that Max lives on as a disembodied consciousness in a parallel universe? I want him here with me now, and I would gladly trade my prospects for Eternity for the chance to hug him one more time. C. S. Lewis himself dismissed the capacity of faith to overcome bereavement. "Don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion," he wrote in A Grief Observed, "or I shall suspect that you don't understand."