Testing the heavens

Religious believers, when mentioning heaven, have traditionally cast their eyes skywards, but the possibility of an afterlife may now be proved by looking down towards the ground.

Doctors at Southampton University are placing pictures in resuscitation areas that can only be seen from the ceiling. These will test the stories of defibrillated patients, who claim they have looked down on the crash teams attending to their lifeless bodies.

The theory is that any of the chest-thumped who successfully play this posthumous game of Where’s Wally? must have had an out-of-body experience, rather than the final flashing fantasy of a dying brain.

And this attempt by a scientific profession to test the claims of religion coincides with a less constructive standoff between rationalists and supernaturalists, namely the forced resignation of Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, after it was reported that he was in favour of ”creationism” being discussed in school science lessons.

What’s whiffy about this incident is the strong suspicion that Reiss, an ordained minister, has been brought down by atheists in the Royal Society who consider religious belief incompatible with scientific practice.

A fair interpretation of his comments is that he was addressing a serious issue affecting education in a culture which is largely secular, but where a small core of students may profess certain religious beliefs. He was suggesting that scientists should engage and argue with believers, rather than mock or ignore them.

Such an attempt to subject supernatural beliefs to empirical testing lies behind the resuscitation unit art show. But an objection to the project is that it suffers from the scientific tendency to believe that anything can be proved one way or another. If any of the patients do prove to have seen art from on high, sceptics will hint darkly at collusion with a hospital cleaner. If they don’t see them, church-goers will conclude that God cannot be trapped by a brain scan.

Many people, whatever happens, will remain ”don’t knows”, and this is a smart group to belong to. Both the theories of evolution and quantum physics stumble over the question of first cause: the process by which nothingness became something. It’s this zone of unknowability that leads to physicists using such loaded language as ”the God particle” and has made evolutionists, especially in the US, vulnerable to the counter-dogma of ”intelligent design”.

Dr Sam Parnia, one of the curators of the crash room gallery, has said: ”This is a mystery that we can now subject to scientific study.” But, in that sentence, ”mystery” is the crucial word. Religion speaks of the ”sacred mysteries” — to which an explanation is promised after death — but it has always seemed vital to me that those who reject the sacred continue to respect the mysteries of how and why we are here.

An interesting experiment in this context involves Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. They have almost identical beliefs on Darwinism and religion, but their attitudes are radically different: the naturalist retains an element of wonder at the beauties and cruelties of existence that the biologist seems to lack.

The possibility of doubt is an important part of belief and unbelief.

The novelist Terry Pratchett is exemplary in this respect. Long a proud trophy of the British Humanist Society, the writer recently had the experience of hearing the voice of his dead father telling him all will be well. The fact that this followed diagnosis with a variant of Alzheimer’s must increase the possibility that Pratchett’s brain was playing tricks on him, but his recent interviews reflect a dent in his scepticism. Both the religious and the scientific should admit to the gaps on their canvases. – guardian.co.uk

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