Nicky Campbell presents a special edition of The Big Questions asking just one question - is there life after death?
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Today on The Big Questions, life after death.
Good morning. I'm Nicky Campbell. Welcome to The Big Questions.
We're back at Shelfield Community Academy in Walsall
to debate one very big question - is there life after death?
Welcome, everybody, to The Big Questions this morning!
Now, this week, the blockbuster American film, Heaven Is For Real,
was released over here.
It is based on the true story of a four-year-old boy, Colton Burpo,
who survived a near-death experience during emergency surgery.
The child later described to his parents how he had visited Heaven,
sat on the knee of Jesus, patted his multicoloured horse
and caught sight of Mary, John the Baptist and Satan.
But Colton also knew about things that had happened at home
when he was struggling for life and this convinced his pastor father
that his son had gone to Heaven and watched over them all -
he had experienced life after death.
Well, to debate whether life after death is possible,
we have assembled theologians from several faiths,
people who have heard from dead people and dead animals,
experts on death, psychologists, sceptics, atheists
and former believers. You can join in, too,
via Twitter or online. Just log on to...
..and follow the links, to where you can continue the discussion online.
There will be lots of encouragement and contributions
from our very lively Walsall audience. Is there life
Dr Conor Cunningham,
theology and philosophy, University of Nottingham.
Let us talk about the soul, first of all.
There you are. What's a soul?
A soul is not what we tend to think, certainly in the Christian tradition,
where we think of it as something I've got in my pocket, like a wallet,
and it floats off to Florida -
read "heaven". Rather, it is the very possibility of the body, at all.
So, for someone like St Thomas Aquinas,
the soul is the form of the body. That is how you recognise something -
a giraffe, a tomato, a collar... Different.
And that is how we live our entire social lives.
That is why we think someone killed someone, because they killed
someone who had a form - a soul.
It is actually... It's the Nicky soul...
..not the collar soul.
-We are different.
-It's a body, isn't it?
-You may have been a giraffe!
It's body. Your body. Your corporeal form, as they put it.
Yeah. And the point here, I mean - I shouldn't jump ahead -
but you do not have... Cos we think
of the soul as being something spiritual. It's not, at all.
Erm...the soul is the possibility of any body, whatsoever.
There aren't any bodies without a soul.
It just happens that ours has a nature which is subsistent,
which means, by that, that its rationality, its ability
to write, from Origin of Species
it has the ability to transcend its corporeality.
And this is one thing that people must remember,
and Aquinas said this quite clearly, St Thomas Aquinas, said,
"The body is there to ennoble the soul",
whereas we, in Western culture, tend to think that the soul is there
-to ennoble the body.
-The body enables the soul to be.
So what about - and more and more scientists are acknowledging this -
what about the cognitive, the more sentient species,
the ones closest to us - bonobos, chimpanzees -
but also extraordinary elephants? Their own self-awareness,
their own cognition, their sense of self, their ability with,
you know, to plan ahead, episodic memory.
-Are we unique or not?
We are unique, but uniqueness has to be very careful.
Anyone who wins the Premier League - Man City -
is still part of a league, yeah? They are still part of a league.
Just so we are unique, we might win the Premier League,
but it doesn't mean we're not the same players playing the same game.
We're still playing football. Right down at the bottom -
-QPR have just got up yesterday.
-So, what, are QPR dogs or something?
-So, it's, kind of, a league table?
Yeah, it's like, I would say, it's like a Jewish thinker said,
"What we have forgotten is that, from evolution, we are connected
"to other animals."
-And everyone thought, "Boo!"...
-OK, so, it's...
..like it's a bad thing, but, no, it's not.
-Because it means they're connected to us.
-So, everything has a soul,
but humans have a slightly elevated form of soul.
So, at what stage in our journey from tree-dwelling apes
to bipedal hunter-gatherers
did we go "Woosh! Right, there you go, you've got a special soul."
-At what stage?
Was it homo erectus, was it homo ergaster, what was it?
Well, anthropologically, we all came from Africa, obviously,
early Africa paradigms.
And then when we got to Europe, we all went,
"Hey, let's have a cappuccino,"
and suddenly there was a massive burst
in our cerebral potential, so sort of 40,000 years ago.
-So, it was a gradual thing?
-It was massive.
-So the soul didn't appear all of a sudden?
-It gradually appeared.
Chris French, does this make any sense to you whatsoever?
Well, I mean, in general terms, the idea that we've evolved
from simpler species, perfect sense, absolutely.
That's biological fact.
But that does raise that whole question of, for those people,
and there are many of them, I don't think we've got one here,
but there are many people who believe that humans
are the only species with a soul,
then obviously evolution is a problem.
Because when did souls suddenly come into being?
I mean, did they come along with the opposable thumb, or what?
How did it work?
And I mean, again, in terms of whether or not we have souls,
it all depends on how you define it.
For a lot of people,
and again, I don't think we've got an example here,
but for a lot of people, the soul is essentially
kind of consciousness, but in some way it survives bodily death.
Now, I don't have any problem at all in accepting that we all have
consciousness, and I think we are a long way from understanding
exactly how consciousness arose and how it worked, etc cetera.
But the idea that we have an immortal soul, a consciousness
that survives bodily death, then I've got big problems with that.
We've got a... Consciousness?
You see, this is the point I disagree with.
Because I think if we are going to be...
We think of the supernatural as something extra special.
It's up here, it's the Florida holiday you always wanted,
the Willy Wonka ticket that you get to go the Chocolate Factory,
the gold ticket.
Then the natural is just here, like the floor, the shoes,
like toenails and stuff.
But the point is that any good atheist, philosopher or scientist
will tell you, there isn't any consciousness.
It's not, it's a life after death.
The big, big, big debate, is there life before death?
And I would argue...
-No, no. It's not a near-death experience...
-I'm going with it.
It's mere life experience we want.
And I think that consciousness is completely wiped out
without a theological framework, a metaphysical framework.
Chris, there are 10 billion neurons in our brain,
and they're connected. Through the neurotransmitters
they have a thousand connections, each of them.
-I mean, it's mind-boggling how the mind boggles, isn't it?
Is that consciousness?
-I mean, again...
The nature of consciousness is something that philosophers
have debated for centuries, and they still argue about it.
It's referred to in philosophy as the hard problem.
How could it be that subjective self-awareness can arise?
-Something that seems to be, whether it is or not...
..something different to this physical body, this physical brain.
How can one arise from the other?
It's called the hard problem in philosophy for a good reason,
because nobody's solved it yet.
And I personally don't think that a theological framework
-actually helps us very match.
-I will be back, I will be back.
-It's David Chalmers who coined
-the hard problem.
-The hard problem.
Let's spread the love. Sorry. Reverend Dr Andrew Pinson.
The hard problem, solve it for us.
Because you know the complexity of the brain,
it could be one of those God of the Gaps things.
Something we just do not yet understand.
I'll just agree with Dr Cunningham about this idea of the soul.
Originally, it meant organising principle,
or living principle, animating principle.
We use the same word for the word animal, in fact.
And the Ancient Greeks saw is a great difference
between the matter that's is dead, and the matter that is living.
Even though the matter is almost exactly the same,
the animating principle is not there in the case of the dead being.
But what the Greeks also suggested is that human souls are different,
because we have the ability to step outside the flow of time.
We have the ability to understand ideas, concepts, abstractions,
numbers, and so on.
And so there must be something rather special about the human soul.
So even before consideration in Christian theology,
for example, people in ancient Greece were already thinking
that there must be something immortal about this special kind
of human soul. And just to add about the uniqueness...
Can I just refer you, before you do that, to Chris's previous point?
At what stage in the ascent of man
and our progress to become bipedal apes and the primates we are now,
the very bright primates, did we get this soul?
I think there is a fallacy here,
because people sometimes think with complex systems
that you change the inputs continuously
and you've got a change of output that is continuous.
But imagine another situation.
Imagine if you raised the Earth's temperature.
Suddenly the Gulf Stream might switch off, for example.
Something like that might happen with complex systems like living
systems. You have a certain number of changes accumulated.
If suddenly you get a change of state, like a phase,
like ice melting or something, and the capacity human beings have
seem to be different in kind, not just in degree.
So Chesterton said, a bird builds a nest.
It doesn't build a nest in the Gothic style.
We don't see ants building statues of famous ants.
But what about the more self-aware animals?
There's extraordinary scientific work...
There are certainly animals...
It's interesting you cite the example of elephants.
-We think elephants can point.
Grieve, perhaps, yes.
Certainly, some animals seem to get towards some of these capacities.
But nevertheless, what human beings do seems to be different in degree.
-Killing each other by the million.
-Good and bad.
-But there's an explosion of potential.
I think it is that question of, it's a matter of degree.
We're talking about a kind of continuum here.
And so the notion that you either do have consciousness or you don't,
or you do have a soul or you don't, I think is a fallacy.
It's an emergent problem. And so therefore to say...
In terms of all the things you mentioned there, counting, planning,
all these other things, even language, debatably,
animals do demonstrate these things.
We're realising more and more about the cognitive ability of animals.
And there's nothing you can really point to that says,
this is something that only humans have got. It's a fallacy.
-Jackie, you speak to animals, don't you?
-Spoke to me earlier!
-I'm just amazed
that people can think that only humans have cognitive thinking,
only humans have the soul, have emotions
-and that we should be above...
-Scientists no longer say that.
-But we're talking about the soul. You believe animals have souls?
-You say you communicate with animals.
But we're talking about how they think, and as Chris was saying,
they can do absolutely amazing things. Same with elephants.
They can travel for miles.
There was a story about a man who'd died and saved some elephants.
They tracked and found his grave and stood there,
-and that was all recorded.
And they do absolutely amazing things.
And it's beyond my understanding to think that people think
that they are like robots, or they just do because they do.
They are on the same level, but unique. They are different.
An animal is an animal, but they think
-and do amazing things as an animal.
-What do they say to you?
Oh, they have problems. It's like horses. Horses get problems.
So, therefore, if you think of it, a horse, it's a big animal.
If they didn't want us to ride them and compete and jump and stuff,
they can just say no. And some do.
So, they have problems.
When we talk to an animal, they can actually understand what we say,
and sometimes there's problems where they don't understand.
They have misconceptions about things, the same as children do.
And then you'll get, say,
an animal that's been abused by somebody, and people will know this,
animals get seriously abused and yet they go to another home
and with love and care people can actually turn that animal round.
And not just to be, "Oh, I'll have a biscuit."
Look at the cat the other day that attacked a dog to save that child.
-That just shows...
-Well, empathy is more and more observed, isn't it?
But have you talked to dead animals?
-Absolutely. This is basically... I think...
-Some people will scoff.
Oh, absolutely. But this, to me, our bodies are just the energy.
And if I can talk about the energy field, NASA invented a machine
to measure auras, and so therefore they are measuring our energy field.
It's been done.
A man had a leg amputated, it still showed up in his picture.
This is our soul, our core.
So when we leave this physical body, then yes, they go to spirit.
And I don't just...
There's lots of people that do my job, you talk to them,
you tell them stuff, the owners know about their animals.
I wouldn't know the animals, but I can tell them stuff
that that animal shared with them when they were living.
-You look a bit sceptical, Chris.
-I'm looking very sceptical indeed.
-I'm sorry, Jackie.
-No, no bother at all.
-Even more so.
Would you be as sceptical with any other belief system?
Whether they spoke about virgin births, or resurrections...
-..on night flights to wherever?
Are you equally sceptical?
-Are you equivalently sceptical of all?
-So no religion would exist then?
-Are you an equal-opportunities sceptic?
Exactly, yeah. I'm an atheist, so, you know.
The thing is, we get a lot of these kind of claims.
As far as I am aware, and please do send me the details
if I'm wrong, Jackie, NASA have not got a machine that measures auras.
-There are lots of claims related to these kind of things,
like Kirlian photography et cetera.
It can all be explained in terms of conventional physics and chemistry.
But these are claims that we can actually put to the test,
-and indeed, I spend a lot of my time...
The idea that Jackie can actually read animals' minds,
we could put that to the test.
I've tested lots of psychics with lots of claims,
under properly controlled conditions,
-and they don't seem to be able to do what they think they can do.
It's interesting. You use the word supernatural, OK?
It is supernatural. Super, as in very natural. But it's like exams.
Somebody goes for an exam and they can be cracking at school, but you
put them in an exam, under pressure, and it's like, this is harder.
And I know you say that.
But why don't you say, just follow, say, 10 psychics' work,
follow what they do.
I've changed animals that were going to be put to sleep and stuff.
Can I take you back to what we're discussing,
which is the basic point that,
you are actually theoretically in agreement, because
if there is such a thing as a soul, you are closer to Jackie's position.
You are saying if there is a soul, animals have one.
I wouldn't deny animal consciousness.
Again, it depends how you want to define the soul.
Personally, I don't find it a very useful concept,
and I certainly don't believe in the immortality of souls.
-Let's get the Muslim perspective. Good morning, sir.
A cardiologist. And also an Imam. Mr Hamed, isn't it?
-Dr Hamed, yes.
-Dr Hamed, I do beg your pardon.
What is a soul, and where do the souls come from?
I am commenting on the soul in Islamic belief, which is part
of the monotheism, believing in one God, is that it is part of God.
Now, animals do have souls, but they are different from humans.
That is why in the Koran there is a verse,
"We dignified the human beings."
So, human beings have been dignified by God to have the willing
to do things.
Unlike other souls, which... You can communicate with them, you can feel
that your animal, whether it is a horse or a camel or whatever,
feels your emotion. That is different.
But the soul of human beings is quite different, and there is a
difference, also from conceptive matters, in between brain and mind.
And that is what the philosophy talks about.
There is quite a difference between that.
All animals have brains, but they don't have a mind.
See, this is the...
There are animals, you will appreciate that there are animals
which have cognition, and also, they think, some have mental cognition.
-They not only know they are an animal,
-they know they are an animal, which is metacognition.
There are animals with self-awareness. It's a spectrum.
-You think it's animals, and it's us.
-Yeah. As I'm saying,
-their cognition is different from the cognition of human beings.
-That's what you believe.
Scientists may disagree with you, but that's what you believe,
and that's fine. What about souls? Where do they come from,
and how are they handed out?
From an Islamic perspective, it all comes from God.
And usually the human being created as a small flash
in the womb of the woman.
And then, after a certain period, usually around 120 days...
-Do the souls pre-exist?
-The souls pre-exist from God.
Everything God created and is there, but it will come to that body,
to that flesh at that time, at 120 days.
Where are the souls right now that have not yet come to flesh
and come to bodies? Where are they now? Are they in a special place?
There's a very special saying... HE SPEAKS IN ARABIC
The translation is that God takes our oath from before we existed,
that you recognise that there is one God,
and that the place of mercy to everything, to the whole universe.
And then everybody accepted that.
That's why we all, whether you are humanists, atheists,
at certain times, when the plane crashes
or when someone has a difficulty or has a divorce,
then we all come back to our source of love, God.
Whether we believe in it before or not, that will come.
-Again, Chris, you're looking agitated.
-I know, I don't agree.
There is this statement, "No atheists in foxholes".
It's just not true.
I know lots of atheists and humanists who've gone through
very difficult times and they don't resort to praying to God.
They just don't believe there is such a thing.
Deborah, I'm so sorry not to have come to you sooner.
Because I see you've been moving around in your seat.
You want to come in. So, the soul.
Is there anything more, anything greater,
anything that transcends the sum of the parts of the neurons
and axons and dendrites and neurotransmitters?
I think the first thing we've got from what we've got so far is that
you've got to start with your definitions very, very carefully.
And the colloquial definition of a soul starts with a personality
and a character, a consciousness, and something
that can last after death.
So that's a very colloquial definition.
And it's not the definition that Conor started with.
So, if you are going to believe in something like that,
it's frankly quite hard.
We'd all like to. I mean, I'm a total atheist,
but I would like to, why wouldn't I want to last?
I just don't think that the evidence is particularly compelling.
But Mark Twain said something like, "I was dead for billions of years
"before I was born and it didn't trouble me in the slightest."
Absolutely. That's the thing, it's just an in-built preference of ours.
It's the way we look at the world.
It must be the single hardest thing to escape,
the thought that we have our perspective.
You know, this is me looking at things and interpreting things
and talking to you.
It's very difficult to imagine this without me
as a witness in the middle of it. And I think that's the failure.
Let's get a Buddhist perspective on this from the Venerable Choesang.
A senior nun of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.
-Good to have you here.
-For you, the soul is on a journey, isn't it? Through many lives?
We don't refer to it as a soul, although I would use that
when I'm talking within a Western society.
We talk about it being an essence of mind,
and that essence of mind is what's released from the body on death
and goes forward to the next life.
So all sentient beings have an essence of mind,
and that essence of mind grows with a cognitive ability,
depending on what type of animal they are.
So, you wouldn't go from an insect to a human, perhaps, but once
you've been a human you probably wouldn't go back to being an insect.
Although you could travel backwards a little,
depending on what you're going to be.
So we see all sentient beings as being very precious,
that they all have that essence of mind.
And the Tibetans actually studied for over a thousand years the mind,
rather than the reaction with the body,
and came up with the fact that mind is everywhere.
It's in every cell of your body.
And scientists now are actually proving that one.
And so the brain is just like the motherboard
that puts the thought into action.
But your essence of mind is throughout your body.
And it gathers at the point of death, and then
leaves your body at some point after the heart has stopped beating.
And you believe that what we are now is dictated
-by what we have done previously in a previous life?
-And earlier in this life.
-What about your own situation?
-Because you have had illness in your life.
Have you considered why that was?
Yes, it really helped me to understand, actually.
Because rather than be thinking that somebody out there
defined how my life was going to be, to understand Buddhism
and realise that I was in control of my life,
and the fact that I was born with a disability,
and I have met mothers that have been born with a disability,
knowing it comes from a previous karma is actually much more
acceptable than that there is a God figure out there defining
-that that is going to be my life.
-Was it your fault?
No, it's just the culmination of a previous life.
So I'm no longer responsible for how I behaved in a previous life,
-but at that time I was responsible.
-Right, OK. So are you a changed...?
Are you a changed essence of person, or essence of human?
But you're the same essence?
Yes, your main propensities will go forward.
You see some children, they'll be only 18 months old
and they'll go stamping on animals and they are always angry.
And then you get others that want to mother everything,
and you see babies that are born with the wisdom of ages.
So you see this essence of mind that's come forward
-from a previous life.
I think there's a couple of things there.
First of all, we can end up imbruing other people's characters,
especially when they are very tiny, with specific characteristics,
and bringing those things out.
And however you choose to find the comfort in your own life
is of course your own business.
But the belief in predestination, sorry, in karma and reincarnation
and things like that, can sometimes be downright offensive.
I have a friend who has very, very bad cerebral palsy. She's an atheist.
But she has family members who are Hindu,
and they believe in some way she has deserved this. They think it's OK.
And they don't want to listen to her whining.
Yes, we wouldn't use words like, you deserve it.
-It's a culmination of previous karma.
-Have you got any idea?
Is it possible to get any inkling, any glimpse, of previous life?
-Can you find out?
When you become more of a senior practitioner,
-your past lives do start bouncing in.
-Have yours bounced in?
We all see this, don't we? You have a deja vu moment.
And we say that's because you've recognised a place,
or you've recognised a person from a previous life.
And yes, they do start coming. Not in order.
They just come bouncing through when you are in your other practice.
Lots of bits of evidence are put forward by people
who believe in reincarnation, deja vu would be one example.
Apparently retrieving past lives through hypnotic regression,
all kinds of other things.
All of these can be explained much more plausibly with a lot of evidence
to support it in terms of what we know
about science and human psychology.
Are you telling us that when you see someone and you think,
"I've seen this person before, I know this person from somewhere,"
it's not because you knew them in a previous life?
I'm saying exactly that, yes. I mean, we know, for example,
that what's happening in the temporal lobes of the brain can sometimes
give you that feeling of deja vu,
that feeling that you recognise that person, even though you don't.
And certainly with respect to memories of past lives,
there's absolutely no doubt at all in my mind that we are dealing
with false memories there.
They may feel very real, but they're actually not.
I want to come to you in a second, but...
I've actually investigated two young children that have come out
with previous lives that they've had,
which no way they could have had that information.
What was the information?
One was that he was a water carrier in India,
and he explained about his bicycle and how his legs became bent, and
he explained what the carrier looked like, and what his village was like.
He was four years old.
And then another one was, even at two and a half,
this little girl was talking football to her father,
and maintained that she could drive a car.
And she'd crashed her previous car.
And what glimpses have you had into your previous lives,
since you're quite spiritually advanced?
I've come up with some previous lives, and one of them,
in particular Tibetan life,
has actually been proven by the high Lamas.
But it's not something we actually discuss openly with people,
-just within our own groups.
-But it's interesting to get a sense of it.
Gail, Gail Millington. Morning.
You're a past life regression therapist.
-So this part of our conversation is absolutely for you.
And your husband, I believe,
-you've been married to him in previous lives as well?
-So was I.
-So were you what?
-I was married to him as well!
That's quite a revelation!
I think it's quite easy to be very flippant about this.
-Yeah, Conor. Put it back in your box.
So how do you know that you knew him before, in previous lives?
Four times, I believe. How do you know that?
Well, because of being regressed myself.
And I think that,
certainly with doing regressions with other people, as well,
I mean I'm not in total agreement with what the previous speaker
mentioned in terms of karma, because I believe that we...
There's nobody that judges us other than ourselves
when we pass over to the other side.
And that we decide when we reincarnate what lessons
we want to learn from the forthcoming incarnation.
So my concept of the soul would be the immortal essence
that goes from one incarnation to another.
It's not that far away from what the Venerable Choesang was saying.
No, it isn't too far away.
But I don't believe that it's for... That it's karmic,
why the lady has found herself in ill health.
I think that she has chosen that to enable her to do what she does now.
She's been brought to this point in time,
and perhaps doing what she does in terms of her Buddhist belief,
as a result of the disability.
I'll come back to what Venerable Choesang was saying
in a second - just to explore this a little bit more -
What were you in a previous life?
Were you sometimes a man, and was your husband a woman?
Most of the time it was as it is at the moment.
-But it has been different?
-There has been differences.
But, yes, times as a Shaman, various other scenarios.
But are you the same person? You were a Shaman, were you?
Yes, in one life.
Are you the same person as the person who was a Shaman?
-When was this?
-No, that was a soul progression. The soul progresses.
The same soul, but not the same person?
-Absolutely not the same person.
-When were you a Shaman?
-Hundreds of years ago.
-Hundreds of years ago, yeah.
Do you know when specifically?
-I can't remember when it was, to be honest.
But it was hundreds of years ago. But there's no linear time.
When you are doing regressions, you can go back
to any particular life that's going to help you specifically
in your current life now, so you don't go back to a specific...
I believe it's the higher self that chooses the life that you need
to go back to which is going to be most beneficial to help you now.
-For what it's worth, and I can assure you it isn't worth a lot,
I'm a qualified hypnotherapist.
A quick course while I had nothing else to do. And it was fascinating.
It's good for anxiety, that's about all.
And one of the most amazing things about hypnosis is just how it really
frees your imagination. If you can let yourself go with it,
you can come up with the most amazing things.
And you can come up with something that's historically plausible,
like you were a Viking raider, or you can come up with something
completely bizarre, that you were on an alien spacecraft.
So that, by itself, having a peculiar experience under
a hypnotic trance is not at all bizarre.
-It's totally predictable.
-What you typically find
is that the stories that people typically come up with,
the narratives, and they've got all the images in their heads
-that make it seems very real...
-So, it's sincere.
But it corresponds to the Hollywood version of life in Ancient Rome,
or wherever it may be. It's not the historically accurate version.
There is an awful lot of supporting evidence that's been done
specifically by Dr Ian Stevenson, for example,
where he has actually researched
quite specific cases of reincarnation.
And nobody is going to give you absolutely concrete proof
that this is the case, but there is a growing raft of evidence.
-You have communicated with, or been in the presence of people who have spoken to dead people?
-What are they saying? What are the dead people saying? What's the message?
It's very specific to the person concerned.
There isn't a general message. It's very specific for a specific person.
Right. We're going to talk about life after death soon.
But is there an unpleasant place and a pleasant place,
or is it all fine after?
No, I don't believe there is such a place as hell.
So, it's all kind of... Jackie, what's it like?
What are the dogs telling you?
To me, it's just your energy is free,
and yes, we do get some visual stuff,
but what I would say is, talking about a general message...
It's like you hadn't seen somebody for say, 20 years,
and somebody goes, "Here, have a phone, talk to them."
OK, the information you have to work out, but at the end of the day,
they will tell you stuff about you, about them, things you shared,
and that is where evidence comes in.
Rather than just, "They say hi."
Manoher, good morning. So what about the...
Does anything chime with you about the journey of the soul
that you have heard so far?
I mean, my biggest question really would be, given that we
can map memories to brain function and stuff,
so it's a very physical thing, I'd be curious, as well as language,
communication and stuff, I'd be curious as to know exactly
how something that was immaterial had memory.
And also, could communicate.
That would be my biggest question about any of this.
What is the Sikh belief about the journey of the soul?
-Are you a believer?
-Am I a believer? I'm very much a religious person.
But however, the assumptions would be that all religions are set up
in the same way with their beliefs. So there is something physical,
and then there is something non-physical - that is the soul.
And that a soul then migrates and carries karma and stuff.
This is the impression that people generally have of Eastern religions.
I think the place to start with Sikhism would be that you start
with a closed system, and make the assumption that everything
is divine, whether it's material or immaterial.
And that anything that is living, given that everything is divine,
there is no soul to be moved on from here to there or anywhere else.
There are cycles of birth and death, we know that.
There are multiple types of existence,
multiple types of animals and plants that have evolved over time.
So that isn't problematic.
What is more interesting from a Sikh perspective is, what any theory
you have about the soul or consciousness,
what it does ethically.
So, if you make the assumption that one type of animal has
a more elevated soul or consciousness than another,
does that then lead you to behave differently towards that animal?
Well, there used to be views, didn't there, in previous times,
-that one race had a superior type of soul to another.
So there is a kind of a road to hell on that one, isn't there?
Any thoughts from the audience, while we're on souls?
Right on the centre. While we're on souls.
I find it quite interesting, the indestructible aspect
of the soul, is it in the brain, is it in the mind?
People who have had brain injuries, it's also affected their mind.
Is it in the heart? Say if somebody has had a heart attack or
heart transplant, does that mean their soul has moved on as well?
So I think we have to be very careful,
and concepts such as karma and rebirth can be quite offensive
for many people who have been oppressed for generations.
Political elites that have used them,
and said, actually, you are in the state that you are,
you are suffering, because of what you've done in the past.
-You have to be careful.
-Gentleman just back there, hello.
-It was Phineas P Gage who,
a while ago in the 19th century, there was a rock mining accident
and a pipe went through his head
and it destroyed most of his left frontal lobe.
This changed his personality,
and people who thought before he was a nice, kind person,
found that he was aggressive and mean to people.
Surely this takes away from the fact that the soul
-is what is your personality.
It's backed by biochemistry, yeah. What about life after death?
-Andrew Pinsent, what happens? Is there such thing as hell?
I think the best way of describing it,
CS Lewis summed it up in just one short phrase. He said,
"In this life we write the title page of what we are to be in eternity."
One thing a Christian and atheist would agree about,
when we leave this life we cease to change.
That becomes the pattern of our eternity.
As to whether or not we have another life or not, I think
we really have to draw for the most part on revelation.
Of course, as a Christian,
there's all kinds of additional information on this.
The continuity of the personality of Christ, the resurrection,
that he knows his friends.
You've also got the sense of a life, ultimately, an embodied life,
actually, ultimately an embodied life.
Embodied, we have our physical bodies. At which stage in our life?
-In terms of the resurrection of the dead.
-When we're 30, when we're 20,
when we're 40? At what stage?
Actually, there are differences of view on that.
I wouldn't want to give a definitive suggestion.
But there is some sense in which, we were meant to be body and soul.
We were created as body and soul.
And if there is a God, a loving God, God wants us to be body and soul
eventually, in some kind of new existence.
In this life, we write the title page of what we are to be in eternity.
Is it not a very anthropocentric view to say that, looking at
the world through human eyes to say, we will be reunited with our bodies?
Is that almost a kind of medieval version?
An attempt to understand, an attempt at solace,
an attempt at consolation?
For many, it's just an utterly ridiculous concept.
Well, what otherwise can we look through, except our own eyes?
that doesn't make it either valid or invalid.
But the very question about our bodies when we are 15, I'll have one
-when I was 21, I think.
-OK, I'll give you the view...
Thomas Aquinas thought we all ought to be 30 years old,
that's roughly the time that Christ died, for example.
And did he have a divine revelation?
Or was he just a philosopher writing and working it out as he went along?
Well, he suggested it as a possibility. As a probable thing.
-But the issue raised by this gentleman here,
I mean, supposing somebody suffers some form of brain damage
that completely changes their personality before the age of 30?
Does that mean that that's the version of them
that goes onto the afterlife? It just doesn't really make sense.
It's arbitrary, it's about trying to make out we are God's special
creation, and really evolution knocked that on the head.
-The theory of evolution knocked that on the head.
Yes, I just disagree. First of all I think that story is not true.
-But there is actually better versions than that.
Phineas, with the pole through the head.
But if your hippocampus is damaged, your personality changes.
But the better one is actually the guy who became a paedophile
through a tumour in his brain in Texas, and they took it out,
and he was fine again,
and it grew back again and he went back to paedophilia.
So that's a better classic example.
I think the thing we're doing here is,
I still think we're doing the natural-supernatural thing too much.
And I think that we are... If atheism is true,
materialist reductionism is the case, fair dos. That's absolutely fair dos.
But if that's the case, there are no atheists.
It's as bad as me thinking that Nicky, whose body
I saw two years ago, clothed, two years ago, is completely different.
-You're completely different.
-You're already resurrected.
-In that sense.
But we still call you Nicky. So, how are we doing that? It's form.
-And that's why we hold people accountable for crimes.
-Hitler, genocide, rape, paedophiles.
-But the memories are still there.
-The old memories and the new memories
and the memories that have formed. That's continuity.
But the point is, what they call HADD,
hyper agency density device
or something like that, where we make false positives,
like lovers sitting on a summer's day looking up at the sky and seeing
clouds and going, "That looks bit like a horse,"
"That's a bit like the Isle of Wight, that looks a bit like..." But it's not, is it?
We are doing it by looking at each other, thinking... What's your name?
-Chris! I'm making a false positive, thinking it's Chris.
It's not true.
Because Chris is simply a material aggregation which has no form.
-But it's called Chris.
-It doesn't exist.
Do we spend too much time...and it's very persuasive, isn't it?
This idea, it's a very powerful idea. It's a very consoling idea.
The idea that we go on, we see our loved ones again,
we see our dog again.
I'd love to see the dog that died when I was 11 years old.
I still get weepy when I think about that dog. It's persuasive, isn't it?
-Can I have a word later on?
-Give us his name.
-It's persuasive, isn't it?
It is. I think there's something about it that is comforting
and consoling, the sense that everything stops at the grave
is actually quite terrifying for both those who are saying farewell
to relatives, and also when people reach the end of their lives.
You definitely have a sense that, "Is this it?"
I hope there is something more than this.
And maybe there is, maybe there isn't.
But I don't think, in the end, we are ever going
to come up with an answer this side of wherever it is.
There's a lovely Talmudic story which says that just before a baby
is born, an angel takes this baby
and shows it the entire secrets of the universe,
then places his finger on the baby's lips,
and the baby forgets everything.
And we then spend the rest of our lives remembering.
Now, we're not doing a very good job, let's be honest.
A couple of comments and I'll come back to you. Guy at the back.
-I'd just like to say...
-No, you go first, you've got the microphone.
I really do agree with that in the sense of,
I work in a hospice where I've seen many patients deteriorate.
And going back to what you said about when people are backed
into a corner, you could say that they turn to religion.
That's not true. A lot of people are very, very upfront about it.
"I'm going to die, I don't believe that there's anything after death."
-And they're fine about it.
And some people who have been religious for their entire lives,
for years and years, will then renounce their faith.
I've seen that happen as well.
When you are in that situation,
-some people do actually consistently stay atheist.
-And at the back? Hello.
I think it's been well established in neuroscience for a long time
that when you damage certain parts of the brain
you lose certain abilities of the mind.
So if you damage the prefrontal cortex you lose the ability
to feel compassion for people, for example.
In philosophy, this is called the causal argument.
But what's been said, although no-one has said it directly,
is that at complete destruction of the brain at death,
that the cognitive faculties stay intact,
rise off the brain and live on for all eternity.
Which, to me, poses even more difficult questions
than it seems to answer.
I mean, Pete, interesting points from our contributors there.
But you can understand, as I say, it's a seductive idea, isn't it?
You can understand, for example, why Christianity really took off.
In Roman times, which is when Christianity began, the Jews,
and of course, Jesus was a Jew as well,
were having a particularly tough time under the Romans.
They were oppressing them and persecuting them,
and killing them quite randomly.
And yet the rabbis,
who were the ones who were bringing the Judaism into the world
as we currently know it, 2,000 years ago,
were continuing to insist that the people carry out these
various commandments, and the more commandments they observed,
the more God would be pleased with them, and all would go well.
And this was not a very persuasive argument,
because evidence was clearly to the contrary.
Things were NOT going well. The Romans were giving the Jews a difficult time,
and nothing they did made any difference.
And the Jews complained to the rabbis, because they're very good at complaining,
and said, why are we doing this stuff if it isn't working?
So, the rabbis said, "OK, there'll be a life after death
"and it will all be better in that one."
And that was where the whole concept of life after death emerged.
It's fascinating as to why it emerged,
because... Professor Tony Walter, Death Studies, Bath University.
It's really interesting relating different cultures, different
periods of time, with what people believed and why they believe it.
-Give us some examples.
Just take something like belief in hell, which is distinctly
out of fashion nowadays.
-Not for some of the people that appear on this programme, I have to say.
But in the Middle Ages,
probably more people did believe in everlasting flames
for ordinary sins.
But that was a time when you could be hung for stealing a sheep.
But not any sheep. If it was the Lord of the Manor's sheep,
then you'd be hung.
The point was, the size of the punishment in the medieval system
was actually not dependent on the size of the crime
but on the status of the person you had offended against.
So, minor sins against an almighty God
merited actual eternal damnation.
So, in that legal system, then it feels plausible.
But once you move to modern legal systems,
where punishment fits the crime, as it were,
that notion of eternal damnation doesn't make any sense any more.
So you get a kind of relationship between legal systems
-and what people think about life after death.
-Add also tribal systems.
Surely if we're talking about the desert tribes of the seventh or
eighth century, or 2,000 years ago, you can understand the patriarchal
reasons for what they were saying and why they were saying it.
Oh, yes. Absolutely.
What people believe about life after death depends on all sorts of things.
Partly what they've been taught, but also,
as you've just described, very specific historical circumstances.
But also, very specific personal circumstances.
And I think it's not necessarily the most helpful way to see
afterlife beliefs as a way of coping with bereavement.
People who are grieving very often have a very clear sense
of an ongoing relationship between them and the person who has died.
And actually some of the things they say about what happens
after death is actually a way of articulating those relationships.
Whether you believe those relationships to have some kind
-of spiritual distance or not is a question, obviously.
-Let me talk about health.
-I'll tell you about health.
I have to set the agenda because I know how long we have got.
It doesn't make sense, what you told him,
that there is 11 billion cells in our brain,
and we still think that there is no God. It doesn't make sense.
In any school now, any judge... You will be Hitler-like,
and somebody who is saint-like, and everything is fine.
-There should be a God.
-And that's the concept of hell.
-Life after death,
or, you know, life before death, as somebody said,
hell is very graphically described in the Koran, isn't it?
It is precisely described, the same number, the hell and heaven.
So, it's fair.
Women hanging by their breasts if they've committed adultery...
-But also, heaven as well.
-This is a misconception.
-Adultery can be punishable for men and women.
-It's not only for women.
People are hung by...?
It's a misconception that Islam punishes women only. It's not that.
I'm talking about one example. Are women hung by their breasts or not?
People can be punished differently. There are all kinds of punishment.
-Men can be punished also.
-I never said they couldn't.
But you've got to eat devils' heads.
It's all very graphic, very horrible. It sounds to many people like...
But there's also a very, very pleasant life,
-that you have rivers of wine...
Alcoholic, but it will not give you the effect of alcohol.
-So, what's the point of having it alcoholic then?
-The point is...
The point is that God, that is the concept.
God asks you not to do something, and that's what you have done.
All right. Can I ask you something? Can I ask you something?
It says that you will be served by dark-eyed maidens and youths, yeah?
Yes, people who are serving you, like a servant.
Like anybody who is wealthy,
and you will go on to find many people serving you.
-So people are serving you?
-What about them?
Can't they enjoy the rivers of wine? Why do they have to spend their time
serving people who are enjoying the rivers...?
Yes, I know, but let's come back
to why we are human beings and these are animals.
-From an Islamic concept...
-Why is it youths and dark-eyed maidens?
I'm sorry to say it, but there's a kind of...
There's something very seductive about that for some people,
and again, it's playing on very earthly desires,
if you don't mind me saying so.
Look, God gave us the will to come into this world
and do whatever we like, obey and disobey.
That is the difference between us and animals and other creatures.
They do have a soul, but their soul is different from ours.
-And we have a higher level of soul.
-I wasn't asking that.
I was asking about the earthly desires. It's in the Christian heaven as well.
-Chris French, do you know what I mean? Let me move to Chris.
-Well, exactly, yeah.
Sadly, I hate to point this out, but it's beliefs like that
that lead people to drive jet planes into skyscrapers.
-You won't get that happening from an atheist.
-Well, I mean...
THEY ALL TALK AT ONCE
Point of order.
But human beings are responsible for it whatever their beliefs.
But this whole idea of, the betrayal of heaven and hell in the terms
which the people at which the betrayal is aimed would understand.
Exactly. I think it goes back to the point being made over here.
It depends on the kind of specific historical contact,
the way that these ideas are put out.
It's not to say that they are deliberately made up,
but they fit their times certainly.
So if you looked back at the way that hell was betrayed in earlier
centuries, then it was a useful means for people to actually probably
-avoid getting hung.
I think it was brilliant that the Rabbi Pete brought up the point
that, and that probably not a lot of people know, that many thousands
of years before that, the Jewish religion
-wasn't particularly preoccupied with the afterlife.
-Not at all.
It kind of happened at the same time as Christianity.
And if you look at, say, the story of Odysseus,
when he went and he had to seek the wisdom of Teiresias,
who had already died.
So, Odysseus had to go to the Underworld to speak to him,
and he had to give him a sacrifice of blood so he could drink the
blood, drink the life, in effect, to even be able to speak.
Hell was a very miserable place.
It was a very dark place full of shades,
and they were just shuffling around.
So you can see with each culture that their hell
very much corresponds
to their current ideas, as you said.
So in our idea of heaven there would be no mobile phones?
Something like that?
If other images weren't too ingrained.
What about, if I may, moving on... What about near-death experiences.
Ken, you've looked into this, haven't you?
-And you work in a hospital?
We have been conducting some research
which is due for publication imminently.
And it's very interesting to hear the various philosophical
perspectives. Of course from a scientific angle
we aren't particularly troubled by those varying views.
What we are trying to discover, of course,
is something about the brain
and the mind and consciousness, with the perspective of trying to address
some of the failures that we have.
When we recover people from cardiac arrest there's a small
but unfortunate percentage of those individuals who have a modicum
of brain damage. And part of our enquiry is to try and understand
what's going on at cellular level so that we can bring into being
medical interventions, such as therapeutic...
So what do people think is happening? Do they think they are floating above themselves?
-What sort of things do they describe?
-About one in 10 patients
who recover are able to describe feelings of otherworldliness,
of having a consciousness whilst they are clinically dead.
And I'd like to make the point,
some folks get cardiac arrest mixed up with heart attack.
What we're talking about here are people who are dead.
Their heart has stopped, their breathing has stopped,
and if you measure their brain activity,
they flatline on their brain, too.
So unless they have an advance directive,
such as a Do Not Attempt CPR order in their medical notes,
-we will attempt to resuscitate.
-What do they say about what has happened?
What they say is that they have a very positive feeling,
they feel spiritually uplifted.
All of the people that I spoke to who gave accounts of that
were very positive about it,
and otherworldly is the best word I can use. They wanted to go back.
One particular gentleman
was absolutely desperate to go back there. He was euphoric about it.
-Has anyone had an experience like this? You have?
-Yes, I have.
Many years ago, in my teens,
the short version is, in my teens I had an exploded appendix.
I went in for an operation and I remember a dream,
a very specific dream that felt, to this day, like reality.
If I close my eyes I can see where I was.
I officially flatlined, I officially died.
Somehow they managed to get me back to life.
The dream, the short version is,
I was in what seemed like a place that was burning, with people
screaming, lots of faces of anger and trying to grab at me.
And something or someone that was bright and shiny
came towards me, held my arm.
And I can remember these words so clearly, "Come with me."
And I remember being taken away. I woke up.
I do believe now, God that cares, I believe that actually happened.
I can't explain where I was. I believe it, I really do.
I believe for some reason I was brought back to life,
and I realise that some of the ladies and gents on this front row
will probably dismiss this.
-No, but I think they believe that you believe it.
-That's the key thing.
-I believe it actually happened.
-Conor. OK, Jackie.
-On your studies, just looking at the evidence,
have you had people that have flatlined
but then actually told you what has been going on in the physical
-round them, in the hospital, things that have happened?
So how have they told you? That shows something, doesn't it?
The very first time I encountered a patient, it was entirely unplanned.
I went to see a gentleman
who had been involved in quite a prolonged resuscitation.
He had been in cardiac arrest for at least 15 minutes,
so he was clinically dead for 15 minutes.
And we were very pleased to have reversed that process.
And I went to see him, one of those brief moments,
when I had nothing better to do,
I thought "I'll go and see this gentleman."
As I walked towards him, and this is a long time ago now,
he had a face on him that suggested to me that he recognised me.
He said, "Hello, how are you?" And he was very familiar.
And I said to him, "I get a sense you know me."
And he said, "Yes, I saw you at my resuscitation."
And he described in very great detail the whole processes that were
-going on around him.
And he can't have got that information from watching television
because on television it's largely inaccurate.
-Well done, thank you.
-Who wants to go first? Deborah?
It's interesting, the definition of death,
and that's exactly what it is. It's a definition.
Who knows what it is? It might be a semantic thing.
It doesn't necessarily mean there is an activity we can't detect.
Also, to get a good, statistical analysis of that you would have
to get all of the false positives.
You would take loads of stories
and see which ones of them actually didn't happen, where they thought
something happened in the operating theatre where it didn't.
And third of all, even if you have very, very...
You might not have sight, but if you have something like a sound,
you can make a story from all sorts of clatterings.
There was one I read on Pim Van Lommel's paper where
somebody had had their teeth taken out and they were put into a drawer.
If you can feel your teeth being taken out, you can hear
a drawer being opened and you can hear a drawer being closed,
it's reasonable for him to have then
retroactively made up a story that then fits that.
Chris, what about this feeling of euphoria?
Could that be a biochemical... I don't know? Chris French?
Yes, it absolutely could be.
Whenever there's kind of physical, or even psychological stress,
then the body releases natural...
Whether you believe in that, it's quite reassuring to know
-that when that point comes we're going to feel...
I'm sure Ken will back this up, there is a minority
-of people with negative near-death experiences.
-Very few, yes.
But it does happen. Like this gentleman described at the beginning,
some people don't get that happy ending. I'm very glad you did.
Thanks for your contribution, by the way. It's good to see you here.
But all of the different components of the near-death experience
do occur in other contexts,
where we can have a better idea of what's going on in the brain.
Essentially, it's this question of, is it a very rich,
very profound but hallucinatory experience?
One of the things that always occurs to me,
we've heard this story of this kid Colton who went up
and saw Jesus and a coloured pony, and Mary and Joseph.
Suppose he'd been a Jew? He'd have said, who are these people?
He'd have been in for a shock.
The point is, everybody has their own experiences,
or life-after-death stories coming from a particular cultural place.
You have particular cultural references with death as well.
Sorry, you had your hand up earlier. A quick point.
So, when you die, it's not just... you stop. There's still blood,
there's still oxygen going in your brain.
What if these experiences are things like your temporal lobes,
which deal with memory? What if that's the connections dying,
and you're remembering things?
And that's the explanation, and it's hormones that give you
this euphoria, and it's actually quite a natural, nice death?
Yeah, that's what we're kind of saying. Venerable Choesang,
Nirvana, let me move on to Nirvana as we move to the end.
Bliss, you reach this state of bliss. It's quite nice being alive.
It can be great being alive.
Why do we want to have this state of sort of floatiness?
Well, there's a misunderstanding.
Nirvana is actually living with equanimity,
and it can be in this very lifetime.
Whereas Buddhahood and Nirvana are different places,
and Buddhahood is when you go out as an energy being after a death,
and you don't have to be reincarnated.
You can come back if you wish, but you don't have to.
You are free from birth?
Yes, free from a gross birth that we experience.
And they can actually be out there at one with all the energy,
and work at an energetic level.
And same from what others were saying earlier.
If you're at an energetic level,
we don't use all the concepts that we have here in a body.
We can see and hear and think it's kinesiology,
it's all totally different. It all comes in a completely different way.
We have a framework of how we discuss it now,
but it wouldn't be the same framework
that we would use for that particular experience.
-Well, that was...
-No, we're finished. We're over.
No, we've reached the point of Nirvana.
Thank you all very much indeed for your contributions.
As ever, the debate will continue on Twitter and online.
We're not on next week because of Whitsun,
but we'll be back from Brighton on June 15 for the last show
of this series, so, don't miss that.
For now, it's goodbye from everyone here in Walsall.
Have a really, really good Sunday.
Thanks for watching The Big Questions.
Nicky Campbell presents a special edition of The Big Questions, from Shelfield Community Academy in Walsall, asking just one very Big Question:
Is there life after death?
Amongst those taking part in the debate are: the philosopher and theologian, Dr Conor Cunningham; Prof Chris French, a psychologist of paranormal belief; the past-life regression therapist, Gail Millington: Deborah Hyde, editor of The Skeptic Magazine; the physicist and theologian, Rev Dr Andrew Pinsent; Venerable Choesang, senior nun to His Holiness 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet; Professor of Death Studies, Tony Porter; Manoher Singh from the Sikh Studies Forum; Jackie Weaver, The Animal Psychic; Rabbi Pete Tobias from Elstree Liberal Synagogue; Ken Spearpoint, researcher into near death experiences; and Dr Amer Hamed, a hospital imam.