Monday, March 21, 2016

Science and the afterlife

When "science tackles the afterlife" in Mary Roach's 2005 book Spook, you don't find much in the way of answers to age-old questions, but you do find a good time. Roach, as in other books with mostly one-word titles like Stiff, Gulp and Bonk, seems more interested in satisfying her curiosity and discovering science's lighter side than in hard science. Her college degree was in psychology. Still she imparts some information you are not likely to find, at least not all in one place, in any other science book.

Her most amazing bit of information may be simply that a few scientists really have made serious studies of such questions as: Do human bodies lose weight after death, possibly because of departing spirits? Can mediums really communicate with the dead? Do near-death experiences really give glimpses into heaven? Can cameras, recorders and other devices capture evidence of spirits that cannot be detected by the human senses?

The evidence in these studies proves inconclusive, yet often suggestive. Roach herself, if still skeptical about an afterlife at the end of her book, nevertheless seems hopeful. "I believe in the possibility of something more ...," she writes. "It's not much, but it's more than I believed a year ago."

Thus, Spook is a book both believers and skeptics can take some comfort in. It doesn't prove their position, but neither does it disprove it. Is there life after death? It's a question much of the world ponders during Holy Week. This book leaves most of us where we began, relying not on science but on what we believe, or what we want to believe.

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