In early November, a conference in Durham hosted by the Forever Family Foundation claimed a scientific approach to the experience of life after death. These claims excited the community and caused some people to wonder whether it is possible to explore spiritual topics from a scientific perspective.
Faith is based on belief, but science is concerned with evidence and a careful analysis that attempts to minimize the influence of beliefs. How can these two areas possibly be compatible?
The very nature of scientific inquiry makes it possible for scientists to study any phenomena that exist in the world including claims of the effects of prayer, visitations by spirits, and the personal experience of a connection to God.
It is true that faith is based on an unwavering belief in a concept or idea regardless of the evidence that is presented, but the definition of faith does not eliminate the possibility for the scientific exploration of a belief through sound principles of observation, inquiry, and analysis.
Spiritual mediums, like those present at the meeting of the Forever Family Foundation, claim that they are communicating with departed spirits of loved ones who have passed over. This may be unfathomable to many people in the world, but an honest and unbiased scientist would be remiss to discard such a claim out-of-hand based on a materialistic worldview. A diligent scientist would examine these claims using a rigorous and standard approach, while putting all beliefs and biases aside, in an attempt to collect evidence that supports or dismisses the claims presented by the mediums.
This is exactly the type of serious scientific work that was represented at the Forever Family Foundation conference by scientist from the Windbridge Institute, the University of Virginia, and the Rhine Research Center of Durham.
Blinded scientific studies are not easy to design when the topics being explored may be non-physical in nature, but as J.B. Rhine demonstrated at the Duke Parapsychology Lab in the 1930s, there are sound scientific approaches that will help us to explore the nature of spirituality and to determine whether the claimed phenomena are real or the result of wishful thinking.
When Rhine stated that the goal of his research was to bridge the gap between science and spirituality, he set a high standard for the scientific research work while vowing to explore spiritual experiences in a serious and respectful manner. Just a stone’s throw from Duke University, the current Rhine Research Center continues this process today, and with the cooperation of a number of other scientific organizations across the country, advances are being made in the scientific exploration of spiritual experiences and human consciousness.
Is there proof of life after death? There is no definitive scientific evidence to close the book on this topic, but there are a number of persistent facts that include more than anecdotal evidence that personality, spirit, or consciousness continues to exist independent of the physical body. I will not linger on the details of this evidence, but be assured that diligent scientific study is being done to explore these and other phenomena that have puzzled philosophers, religious leaders, and scientists for thousands of years.
John G. Kruth is the executive director of the Rhine Research Center in Durham.