ANVIL Nov 13th Julie Arliss Main Speaker, John Baxter Responder


Wednesday Nov 13th. Our last session for the year will have as our Main Speaker Julie Arliss with myself as the Responder.  Her topic is THE AFTER-LIFE and she introduces it by saying:

The reports of near death experiences, paranoral experiences, telepathy and the like, as well as the beliefs in many world religions, seem to point to some form of post-mortem existence, but the scientific and philosophical problems associated with these beliefs are considerable. This talk will outline the evidence and examine some of the crucial difficulties, such as what would make the person who died the SAME PERSON as the one who is resurrected. “

So we will be facing one of life’s great mysteries. 

And here is my take expressed as a poem followed by notes.

This I See is Certain

If I die tomorrow
in another heart attack
I’m as certain as I can be
“I” won’t be coming back.

For I see no soul or essence
this body can survive,
and death’s banal – a cliché
no escape we can contrive.

So if I’m sure I have no soul,
no basic or unchanging me
no disembodied consciousness
which can go on quite “body free.”

And if I sense there is no God,
no heavenly realm, no toasting Hell,
no second chance, no other life
beyond this one I know so well.

Then what is left?
Just nothing?

For this I see is certain.

If I die tomorrow
I will live on
in those who’ve known me,
loved, hated, worked
and struggled with me.

Also those of chance acquaintance –
colleagues, clients,
fellow passengers on the Tube –
all have absorbed some trace,
some resonance of me – as I of them.

And though this be but partial,
for none know all of me,
yet still it is a knowing.
one that cannot be denied,
or quite wiped out, expunged, forgotten.

Instead we flicker and play on
within each mind we meet,
caught in each other kaleidoscopically,
refracted through myriad mental mirrors,
replayed in countless variations,
performed on many different instruments.
as through each other’s lives we live –
and so are “born again.”

So who then am “I”?
I am the sum of everyone
who I have known,
of all and everything
that’s influenced me.

I am the universe become
“I” includes my parents,
wife and children,
family, loves, pupils,
the people, places, music,
images I ‘ve made,
words written and spoken
all have marked me,.
and make me who I am.
They live on in me
as “now” and “new” and “mine” –
as I live on in them.

“I” am my actions and my choices.
These resonate through time and space,
changing patterns, adding to
the happiness – or otherwise of others.
Even quirks of mind and gesture,
my nuanced meanings,
style of thinking – ways of doing,
thoughts, words, music, tone –
each becomes my own
only as passed on
to change and affect others.

So who are we?
We are made up of patterns
caught from all who we have know,
from all we have experienced.
Actions, reactions, loves and hates –
they live on in us,
leaving imprints soft or strong.

We are made up
of all the countless lives of others
who have gone before
whose struggles place us where we are.

We are made up
of an enfolding nature,
a rich and fragile sphere
of life, death, rebirth, change,
as much a part of us
as is the air we breath,
and we depend upon it.

If then I “die” tomorrow
as certain as my body is recycled,
no atom lost or wasted –
So is it with “my” mind
and those I love.
Refracted and repackaged,
each life is endlessly redistributed,
“reborn” a myriad times.

The Mind, Consciousness and the After-life

Some years ago I heard a senior Buddhist monk I know, Ajahn Sumedho, being asked, “Tell me, Ajahn, what happens to us when we die?” His reply came back sharply, “Anyone who tells you he knows what happens to us when we die is a fool or a charlatan.”  That has ever since struck me as a wise answer, so when I say “I am as certain as I can be” in the first four verses I recognise in theory that I could be wrong and that perhaps there really is a heaven, a hell, a range of alternative worlds or perhaps that we have some essence or soul that can be reborn or re-incarnated in some recognisable way.  Still I find all of these ideas implausible if taken to be objectively true because they seem based on belief in a dualistic supernatural realm not susceptible to scientific examination.  Why, and what then do I think. they are really getting at?  I would suggest they are all linked to attempts to make sense of the unique ways in which the human mind works.

For a start my view has been influenced by my own “near death experience” when I had a heart attack in 2006 (see Take Heart)  Careering along in an ambulance, siren howling and a sharp pain in my chest I felt certain that I was seconds from total wipe out – no out of body near death experiences for me.  I felt my consciousness simply faced switch-off.  Oddly, it did not frighten me and the word “banal” came to me quite unbidden.  Five months later I had to face a triple bypass in Bristol (The CABG Patch). Again I felt to my surprise no fear or anxiety as I prepared for the anaesthetic knowing full well that I might never wake up again.  Obviously I did and for me the operation was an intense and inspiring experience, thanks to a superb surgeon and the NHS.

So what should be made of the many life after death beliefs if they cannot be taken literally?  For a start the evidence of archaeology, history and anthropology is that every form of human culture has regarded the death of the individual as being the entry into some sort of after-life.  This is then taken very seriously.  It is recognised and celebrated.  It is also feared for it may bring damnation (extended post-death suffering) or apprehension over how the dead might influence the living.  It then becomes a very significant factor in the defining stories societies and cultures develop.

From the Dream Time of Australia’s Aboriginals to the Shamanism of the Inuit, from the temples and pyramid cults of the Egyptians and the Mayans, to the selling of Indulgences to build St Peters, from the Protestant wars that followed, and the Great Awakenings that took place in America, stories about the nature of the afterlife has had a huge effect on how societies have been ordered and individuals have behaved.  This has also been true of India with the evolution of the caste system and belief in re-incarnation and the Buddhist rejection of castes but a belief in “rebirth” taken more or less literally.  In China and Africa hugely different cultures have both emphasised the importance and presence of ancestors. Belief in a once-born soul and its salvation or damnation by Yahweh, God or Allah is also central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, though as regards Judaism things have been rather more complicated with some doubting but most affirming an after-life.  Again the point is after-life beliefs have affected whole societies and cultures as well as individuals in profound ways.

For some this near universal belief in an after-life is seen as evidence that there must in fact be some form of “real” or “objective” life after death.  The problem with such a conclusion is that the many forms it is claimed it can take and the assumptions made, contradict each other.  They cannot all be right.  The Eastern views of an almost infinite number of re-incarnations or rebirths and the Jewish/Christian/Muslim idea of a once only life ending in death followed by divine judgement and despatch to heaven or hell are incompatible.  They also do not tie in with beliefs in ancestral spirits, ghosts or the presence of the more recently dead that are widespread across many cultures.

The 18th Century Enlightenment and the rise of science , particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in many becoming increasingly sceptical of the claims that beliefs in a life after death refer to an objective reality.  In fact both liberal humanism and Marxism saw them as illusory.  At the same time there have been scientific attempts to examine such claims with the setting up of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 and universities setting up departments of Parapsychology as at the University of Virginia.  These have investigated Extra Sensory Perception in such forms as telepathy, precognition, poltergeist phenomena, hauntings, seances and other attempts to contact the dead and the “spirit world.”.  Dr. Susan Blackmore ( after years of rigorous research in this field has become a prominent rejector of all such “phenomena” seeing such claims as self-deluding or fraudulent and her view has become widely accepted in academic psychological circles.  Contradicting her Dr Bruce Greyson Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia soldiers on convinced there is evidence that consciousness can operate separated from the brain and that there is good evidence that re-incarnation – at least in some circumstances – does take place.

At the same time traditional Evangelicals, Catholics and Pentecostal Christians continue to believe in life after death based on their faith in a literal resurrection of Jesus.  Similarly Muslims basing their faith on the divinely inspired words of the Koran believe life after death and judgement is inescapable.  Such claims are mutually exclusive and they cannot both be right..  What is more neither are based on what is seen from outside their communities as compelling evidence.  The result has been that in Western influenced societies such convictions have been widely replaced by the secular humanist opinion that we have but one life, this one.

Having come to this conclusion myself I return to this question.  If all these stories about life after death are not based on some objective truth, what are they all about?  Perhaps they are best seen as colourful and vivid metaphors which are a helpful way of referring to the quality of our present life, be it hellish or heavenly, commendable, damnable or in need of improvement.  Tied in with belief in a single good god belief in an after-life can also be used as a “theodicy”, an attempt to offer the hope of a heavenly reward in the next life in the face of extreme and unmerited suffering in this life which can otherwise appear to be bleak, unjust and meaningless.

On reflection however I think these two explanations of what life after death stories are about, while plausible, do not go far enough.  It seems to me that beliefs in some form of life after death are fundamentally caused by the unique nature of the human mind and consciousness.  We are a species that has evolved not only with large brains, but are also uniquely social, imaginative and communicative. As a result of our interaction with each other and the world we live in, we have developed an exceptionally subtle and complex consciousness.  While this is now clearly recognised as dependent on the proper functioning of the brain, it goes beyond that to become a mind, a mind with reflective self-consciousness, a mind which has enabled us to communicate linguistically and imaginatively over space and time with each other and to manipulate our world in staggeringly subtle and complicated ways.

Yes we have big and incredibly complex brains, and we can with increasing accuracy link particular thought patterns with areas of neural activity in the brain, but this does not according to such leading cognitive neuroscientists as Professor Sid Koulder (see Utube) and many others such as David Chalmers completely explain the “hard problem”.  That is how can electrical activity between brain cells bring about something as different as self-aware consciousness?  A huge amount of research is currently devoted to this and the hope is that neuroscientists will in the end discover just how it is that consciousness can “emerge” from matter.

At the same time there is much we do already know.  It seems brains cannot develop and function properly if isolated from fully developed brains. It seems that at birth the brain is still incomplete and it can only grow into the fully functioning brain of a self-aware, self-conscious person with a developed mind by interacting with, being influenced by and entering into extended contact with many other minds.  Usually of course this starts with parents, but research shows that starting from birth the speed at which the infant reacts and learns is awesome as connections are made with others and with all around.

This means that from what I go on to say starting from verse five I do not consider to be speculative, but an attempt to describe what I see happens in and around us while we live and when we die – the real, observable “afterlife,” the extension and consequence of this life as we live on in others and others in us.

These verses then simply refer to the way things are – here in this world – and from this perspective I consider the conventional talk about “the afterlife” as being a way to try and grasp something of the reality of who we are.  I also think all such talk deflects our attention from reflecting more on the fact that all that makes up each of us, both physically and mentally, is continuously changing and resonating on through time and space.  This means that when the body dies and with it our conscious experience of individual identity, it is simply a fact that all we are made up of, mentally in our minds and physically in our brains and bodies, does not end, but is subtly redistributed in time and space and in the minds of others.   This process happens both during our lives and after we have died. and it brings about both foreseeable and many unexpected and unforeseen consequences.

For me this amazing and subtle reality is enough.  My writings, art works and photographs can all be seen as partial expressions of it, allowing parts of me and my mind (which is of course not just mine) to affect others.

Not surprisingly I continue to reflect and seek to make sense of it all and the whole poem is the result of where I currently stand. It has over the course of several years gone through many drafts. Finally, the first four rather brutal verses insisted I add them on.  It may not be the greatest poem, but I hope this provides grounds for reflection and a direction for those who find the traditional teachings no longer satisfy.

John Baxter 2019


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