This question is one of the most ancient posed by human civilisations, as I show in the first part of my book, Survival. The earliest peoples believed in survival but post-mortem existence was not considered to be a desirable state - see, for instance, the Hebrew Sheol and Greek Hades. Ancient Indian philosophy embraced the divine nature of the soul and its survival through rebirth, a state not considered desirable either when compared with moksha or liberation. These ideas arguably migrated through Egypt into the thought of Pythagoras and the Orphics and thence to Plato, whose thought has exerted a continuous influence on the West ever since. Here the soul is considered the essential person and the body the vehicle (or even tomb) of the soul. Survival is understood in terms of the immortality of the soul.
In Hebrew thought we find a different picture developing, based on the psychosomatic unity of the person as soul and body combined (later Pauline thought adds the spirit to make a trinity). Post-mortem survival then becomes the prelude to the resurrection of the body. There is some confusion in early Christian thought about the nature of this body. For St. Paul it is clearly a spiritual body (flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God) but by the time we reach Tertullian it has become the resurrection of the flesh. Modern theologians tend to eschew dualism (and the evidence from psychical research) in favour of a scientific materialist account of the person (non-reductive physicalism) then add that eternal life or immortality is a gift from God. In other words, they reject the concept of natural immortality.
Modern scientific thought embraces a materialistic account of the human being, asserting that the mind or consciousness is a by-product of brain processes. Proponents of this model tend to ignore or dismiss evidence that might call their materialistic presuppositions into question. Plainly, if any element of the personality does indeed survive the death of the brain, then this approach is at best incomplete if not actually inadequate. It seems to me that the evidence points in the direction of a model suggesting that the brain filters or limits our perceptions rather than generating them. The model might at first glance seem a dualistic one implying the interaction of mind and matter, but it takes on a different appearance when one begins from the assumption that consciousness or mind is in some sense fundamental and formative. Mark Woodhouse, in his book Paradigm Wars, proposes a useful model whereby both inner (consciousness) and outer (energy) are necessary at any level of manifestation.
What of the evidence? Most of the books below consider a variety of phenomena including OBEs, NDEs, apparitions, ostensible communications from the dead via mediums or automatic writing, memories of previous lives, lucid dreams and spirit attachment. Taken together there is an impressive and in my view coherent body of evidence best explained by the survival hypothesis. However, no recent writer has advanced a comprehensive model of the human being based on these findings and which might map onto (by extension) our current understanding of the mind. When it comes to the crunch in cases where normal perception can be ruled out, there are only two hypotheses left: super-ESP and the survival hypothesis. As an example, consider a situation where a dead person ostensibly communicates information to someone alive, which that person is unaware of. On subsequent checking, the information is found to be correct. Super-ESP maintains that the information has been gained by the sensitive from a pool of thoughts and memories (this degree of ESP is not normally seen in the lab), while the survival hypothesis (simpler in this case) maintains that the information did indeed come from the surviving mind of the deceased person. The choice between these two explanations is ultimately one based on other philosophical presuppositions or the will to (dis)believe. What is certain, however, is that there is rational justification for belief in the survival hypothesis.
Hart, H. (1959). The Enigma of Survival: The Case For and Against an After Life. London: Rider and Company.
A classic book that was one of my main sources of research when writing my own book - see below. Considers the debate about ESP, survival evidence through mediums, sceptical rejoinders, and the debate about apparitions. The final chapter is a masterly summary of the case for and against, showing that the will to (dis)believe is usually critical. He sums up what he regards as the weaknesses of the anti-survivalist case in the light of the evidence he has considered.
Berger, A. S. (1990). Aristocracy of the Dead: New Findings in Postmortem Survival. London: McFarland. ISBN 0-89950-259-8.
An interesting analysis of the difficulties of communication. Arthur's other work analyses the relative evidential strength of a variety of cases indicating survival and is set out in a casebook format with quasi-legal arguments on both sides.
Almeder, R. (1992). Death and Personal Survival: The Evidence For Life After Death. Maryland: Littlefield Adams. ISBN 0-8226-3016-8.
A very well argued book by a philosopher who thoroughly examines and weighs up the evidence from reincarnation, apparitions, OBEs, possession and communication with the dead. Excellent for those who wish to get to grips with the evidence and arguments.
Lorimer, D. (1984). Survival? Body, Mind and Death in Light of Psychic Experience. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7102-0003-X.
My first book which is divided into three sections: the first is a history of attitudes to mind, body and death; the second, short chapter, examines ways in which people think about paranormal phenomena and what counts as evidence; the third discusses apparitions, OBEs, NDEs and, more controversially, alleged descriptions of bodily death. The arguments are closely related to the case histories and I conclude that no materialist account of mind can do justice to the evidence.
Beard, P. (1966). Survival of Death. London: Psychic Press. ISBN 0-85384-035-0.
Another classic work that constitutes the first in a series of books by Paul Beard, whos was for many years the President of the College of Psychic Studies. His second one, Living On, is well worth a read as a plausible description of scenarios in the 'next world'. He looks at evidence from psychical research, hypotheses pointing away from survival and test cases. In the second half he considers difficulties in personal evidence and communication, then issues arising from the medium and trance personality.
Rogo, D. S. (1986). Life After Death: The Case For Survival of Bodily Death. Northamptonshire: The Aquarian Press. ISBN 0-85030-504-7.
A good introduction to the field covering the major areas of evidence plus the work of Raudive on 'tape-recorded spirit voices' that has been followed by since by Mark Macy and his colleagues; also unusual cases of apparent telephone calls from the dead.
Gauld, A. (1983). Mediumship and Survival: A Century of Investigations. London: Paladin. ISBN 0-586-08429-0.
Written for the centenary of the SPR in 1982, this is a thorough overview of all the kinds of research undertaken by the Society. It is a fair-minded assessment that points out the problems with the super-ESP hypothesis while calling for further research before any firmer conclusions can be drawn.
Currie, I. (1978,1993). You Cannot Die. Element Books, Shaftesbury. ISBN 1-85230-615-7.
A wide ranging investigation with an emphasis on case histories suggestive of survival. Does not consider the arguments against in any detail but is a valuable source.
Myers, F.W.H.. (1992). Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Norwich: Pilgrim Books. ISBN 0-946259-39-9. (Originally published 1903).
An early classic in the field by one of the pioneers of the SPR, later published in an abridged edition. Deserves to rank alongside the contemporary work of William James.
Saltmarsh, H.F. (1938). Evidence for Survival from Cross Correspondences. London: Bell.
Sums up the many communications forming what were called the cross correspondences whereby a group of communicators used different mediums to sent parts of messages, often in Greek and Latin, that were only comprehensible when put together. Designed to prove the survival of collaborative intelligence, this is evidence of the most persuasive nature that would impress all but the most fanatical sceptic.
Crookall, R. (1975). The Supreme Adventure: Analyses of Psychic Communications. Cambridge: James Clarke. ISBN 0227-67606-8.
Takes a 'faggot approach' by carefully comparing the common features of a large number of cases of NDEs and ostensible descriptions of bodily death to build up a picture of a likely scenario surrounding death and survival. While none of the cases is foolproof, together they do constitute a coherent account.
Monroe, R. A. (1994). Ultimate Journey. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-47207-2.
The final book in a trilogy by Bob Monroe, who experienced 'otherworld journeys' over a period of more than 30 years. It is a fascinating testimony that gives a glimpse into the way in which we may function in another dimension and exhibits some continuity with the insights of Swedenborg in Heaven and Hell.
Novak, P. (1997). The Division of Consciousness. Hampton Roads. ISBN 1-57174-053-8.
An original work that looks at the tension between two basic modes of survival: eternal life as an extension of this life, and reincarnation. He surmises that the psyche divides at death, with the conscious mind reincarnating and the unconscious judging itself. It is an intriguing hypothesis but not entirely consistent with the evidence as I understand it.
Becker, C.B. (1993). Paranormal Experience and Survival of Death. New York: SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-1478-0.
A superb overview of the evidence and arguments that considers the wider issues of philosophy of science and proposes a model of resistance to change in the sciences. Highly recommended as a serious starting point.
Keen, M., Ellison. A.J. and Fontana, D.G. (1999). The Scole Report. London, SPR. ISBN 0-800677-06-0.
The most important recent evidence for survival of consciousness which has caused considerable controversy within the SPR itself.
David Lorimer is author of Survival? and is Vice-President of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (UK)