Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Life after death? I’ll believe it when ...

“We think of ourselves as a really science-based organization, but we’re as much about spirituality as about science because the two are not as separate as people might think.”

– Robert Ginsberg, founder of the Forever Family Foundation

In fact – and facts are what count in science – the two are as different as oil and water. An organization such as Ginsberg’s can direct its energies toward science, or it can direct them toward faith – but not toward two opposites at the same time.

Ginsberg linked with the daughter of Durham’s most famous investigators of paranormal phenomena, the late J.B. and Louisa Rhine, to bring the annual convention of the Forever Family Foundation to Durham earlier this month.

So far as I know, the spoons of Durham survived the experience unbent, though I wonder about the reputation of some people who now likely think it was a good idea at the time.

Whatever its apologists say about the Forever Family Foundation, it is not a scientific organization. No one with an iota of critical reasoning would think it so.

The foundation purports to seek empirical evidence of life after death. The insurmountable problem with that is a total lack of documentation from the Other Side.

Yes, the King James Version tells the story of Christ’s resurrection from the dead in magnificent Elizabethan English. But the Bible story is not evidence of survival of the personality after death.

The Bible is a faith-based testament whose central tenet cannot be proven right or wrong.

You either believe it, or you don’t. It’s a 50-50 proposition beyond reach of the scientific method.

Thus for outfits such as the Forever Family Foundation to seek believers’ money for its stated purpose strikes me as well off frequency. If it were a science-based organization, it wouldn’t be advertising its services as a medium for mediums.

Mediums have been frauds from the get-go, revealed time and again as charlatans no matter which guise they adopt. Yet the desire of some grief-paralyzed survivors to contact the shades of the departed is so strong they walk right into the seance parlor.

Seances were a thriving business in the 19th century. They were the stuff of illusion, sometimes remarkable in their complexity – but they were always no more than staged shows.

One luminary who fell for the scam was Mary Todd Lincoln. She had developed an interest in spiritualism in the 1850s, when Abraham Lincoln was moving ever closer to the White House. After the death of their beloved son Willie in February 1862 , Mrs. Lincoln sought to contact him via a medium.

Some believe Lincoln himself attended a seance to that end, but the record is inconclusive. Whatever, Lincoln was something of a mystic and undoubtedly had an interest in Mrs. Lincoln’s quest to find the lost Willie.

Of course, that never happened. As Lincoln, a devotee of Shakespeare, knew from Hamlet’s dolorous meditation on death, no traveler ever returns from the undiscovered country.

The Forever Family Foundation and others that cite evidence for the afterlife must rely on anecdotal evidence of widely varying quality, usually from near-death experiences.

These are the familiar claims of moving through a tunnel, seeing a bright light while experiencing a feeling of unalloyed joy, even hearing the voices of loved ones.

That’s all anyone has to go on, and it’s not enough for science to work with. You can’t do controlled experiments with death.

Heaven may be for real, as the title of a popular book declares, but science can’t can say so, nor can a pseudo-science organization. Neither can the church, at least not in a definitive sense.

According to an instructive quip, an old Catholic priest was asked by a parishioner how he could find out if there is an afterlife.

“Die,” said the priest.

That’s the only way you, I and the Forever Family Foundation will ever know.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.