by Professor David Fontana
Previously published in the April 2007 ITC Journal, ©David Fontana – All Rights Reserved
Interest in Survival
I can never remember a time in my life when I was not interested in the question whether or not we survive physical death. It seemed to me, even as a very young boy, that this question was relevant not only to what happened when we die, but to the way in which we live our lives while on this Earth. If death was the end of everything, then life here and now was meaningless, a cosmic accident that led to nothing. On the other hand, if we survived, it meant we were part of a greater scheme of things, with this life only a stage on our journey, a stage in which our behavior determines what happens to us when we move on to the next stage. It surprised me that most people seemed not to share this interest. At the church I attended everyone seemed to believe in an afterlife, yet to have little idea of what it was like. We were supposed to take everything on trust, and to look forward to a kind of vague afterlife in which (presumably if our voices were good enough) we joined a heavenly choir.
Although this seemed to satisfy most churchgoers I doubted if God really wanted us to stand (or sit) around simply praising him. Surely he would have far better things to do with his time than listen to us, and surely he would expect us to contribute more to the next world than just hymn singing. God would not have created us just to tell him how wonderful he is, since surely he must know this already. So although one could take the existence of an afterlife on trust it seemed to me as a boy that there could be no harm in wanting to know more about it and to find out what evidence had accumulated for it over the years. When I grew older and discovered psychical research I found that indeed a very great deal of evidence had accumulated, and once I became involved in this research I was fortunate to be able to come across similar evidence for myself.
Much of this evidence, both from the literature and from my personal experience, is summarized in my most recent book, Is There an Afterlife? Which brings me onto a further question, why isn’t this evidence more widely known and accepted? Let us take ITC as our example. The evidence for ITC has been growing steadily since Jürgenson’s pioneering work over half a century ago. As evidence, it has three unprecedented advantages which we can look at in turn.
The First Advantage of ITC
ITC evidence is evidence that anyone can try to obtain for oneself, directly and in the privacy of one’s own home. The equipment involved is easy to obtain and relatively cheap – a tape recorder, a microphone and a source of white noise – for convenience usually a radio tuned between two stations. A computer is also necessary if one prefers to record onto the hard disc instead of onto tape. One can work at one’s own speed and in one’s own time, devoting as little as a few minutes once or twice a week to the work. There is no need for a medium or for any previous experience. The only personal qualities that are needed are patience, commitment (it may be weeks or months or even longer before the first results are obtained) and an open mind. Working with one or two like-minded friends or family members helps to maintain interest and may produce quicker results, but this is by no means essential. Many people get on very well on their own.
The Second Advantage of ITC
The second advantage of ITC is that, as the communications come through electronic media rather than through the mind of a medium, they are unlikely to be influenced in any way by human thought. It is true that some critics suggest that psycho-kinesis (PK) from the living – the supposed ability of the mind to affect matter directly – may be responsible for impressing the communications on tape or onto the radio waves, but we have no evidence that PK can produce anything approaching the extensive messages that have been received by ITC researchers. In addition, some of these messages contain material that was unknown to the researcher at the time, rendering it doubly unlikely that the latter was in any way responsible for the phenomena. Thus the belief that the human mind is not responsible for ITC communications seems well founded. In addition, since it is clear that electronic media can hardly obtain material telepathically from the researcher or clairvoyantly from the environment in the way that the medium can, it is fair to say that ITC effectively disposes of the SuperESP (or SuperPSI) hypothesis, the idea that all survival-related messages come psychically (albeit unconsciously) from the living rather than from the deceased.
The Third Advantage of ITC
The third unprecedented advantage of ITC is that when results are obtained a permanent record of them is created. Psychical researchers have long sought for what are called PPOs (‘Permanent Paranormal Objects’), objects that are obtained paranormally and that remain in existence as good evidence for anyone to see and examine. ITC presents us with just such objects in the form of recorded communications apparently from the deceased. Of course, it has to be provable that these recordings are paranormal if they are to qualify as PPOs. Anyone who is sufficiently dishonest or foolish can fake voices on tape or through the radio and claim they were obtained paranormally. It has to be demonstrated beyond doubt that the recorded voices cannot be explained by normal means. There are two methods for doing this, the first of which applies only to the Direct Radio Voice (DRV) and the second of which applies both to DRV and to EVP.
In the first method the voices are either received under conditions that rule out any possibility of fraud (the experimenter receiving the voices knows fraud is not involved, but it is not easy to convince a skeptical scientist of this!) and in the second method the voices themselves are acoustically analyzed to see if they show characteristics that differ significantly from the human voice and that cannot be imitated correctly by faking. Neither of these methods is particularly easy to implement. To achieve the first, one needs to have independent witnesses who ideally provide their own equipment (tape recorder, tapes, radio, microphone etc.) and have full control of it throughout. Furthermore the possibility that transmitting devices are hidden nearby for the purposes of faking voices needs be ruled out by holding the experiments in a neutral venue – which raises a problem in that successful ITC results appear to depend upon a special relationship between the communicators the experimenter, the equipment and the location, and moving to a neutral venue may thus disrupt this special relationship and prevent good results. Consequently a better procedure is to use one of the highly sophisticated devices currently available that tests for the presence of spurious radio signals while the ITC experiment is taking place (although even here it is important that such tests are carried out and recorded by the independent witnesses). If financial concerns rule out the possibility of obtaining such devices, an alternative way of guarding against spurious radio transmissions is to provide two radios, both tuned to the same frequency, on the grounds that if communications are received through one radio and not through the other then this supports the claim that no such transmissions are being received. As a further precaution both radios can be tuned to frequencies forbidden by law to amateur radio operators (see September 2005 ITC Journal, pages 38 to 56, and April 2006 ITC Journal, pages 68 to 69 for details of these frequencies). Again independent witnesses would need to be present to confirm everything is done correctly.
Failure to provide all these elaborate and expensive precautions allows hardened skeptics to claim triumphantly that they have discovered how the ‘trick’ is done. The absurdity of such a claim is all too obvious, but hardened skeptics are far more interested in discrediting ITC than in absurdity. The difficulty involved in providing these precautions means it is virtually impossible for most people to set up skeptic-proof experiments. In consequence – and rightly – they are far more interested in convincing themselves than in convincing skeptics. Nevertheless such experiments are vital and will be set up in due course; the expertise exists, it is only the funding that is lacking. In the meanwhile, all those working on ITC can use the simple experiment that I have tried in two of Anabela Cardoso’s DRV recording sessions, i.e. to ask the communicators to repeat phrases after me. Anabela had no idea on the first occasions that I had even thought up such an experiment, so our successful results ruled out any possibility of subterfuge. Obviously an independent witness should ideally again be involved, and an experiment of this kind can even be tried with the tape recorder (EVP) method. When using this method the request for repetition should come from the independent witness and at an unspecified time, and the tape should then remain under his or her control until it is rewound and played back. Hopefully an ITC voice will be heard repeating the words concerned.
The second of the two methods for demonstrating beyond doubt that recorded ITC voices cannot be explained by normal means, the acoustic analysis of the ITC voices, looks much simpler at first sight, and has the added advantage that it can be used both with DRV recordings and EVP recordings. A further, and particularly important advantage, is that the analysis can be carried out and confirmed any number of times by skeptics themselves (assuming they have the expertise and the appropriate software). Again however there are problems, the most important of which is that the equipment required to carry out the analysis is expensive and highly specialized, and can only be operated by an expert and appropriately qualified acoustic engineer. Anabela and I are currently conducting research of this kind as part of the Oliver Knowles Research Project with the help of acoustics expert Daniele Gullà (see Gullà’s paper in the Proceedings of the First International Conference on Survival/ ITC for details of the acoustic analyses used. [Editer: See Computer–Based Analysis of Supposed Paranormal Voice: The Question of Anomalies Detected and Speaker Identification for a related article by Gullà] ), and hope to be able to publish results soon, but the need for professional software and for the involvement of a suitably qualified acoustic expert means that it is not the kind of work accessible to most people.
Why the Struggle for Acceptance?
In view of these three major advantages, which potentially put ITC in a particularly favorable position when compared not only to other forms of research into survival but all other forms of psychical research, why is it still struggling to gain acceptance outside the circle (admittedly a large and growing one) of those who have experienced results at first hand? The answer is that it shares the opposition that exists towards all forms of survival research. This opposition comes primarily from four groups which we can look at in turn.
Typically scientists claim they don’t find the evidence for ITC or for survival in general convincing, but the truth is they have never studied this evidence and show little sign of wanting to study it. Lack of knowledge of a subject is acceptable – most scientists find it difficult to enough to keep abreast of advances in their own field and can hardly be expected to wade through the extensive data on survival of death (I have over 600 books on the subject), but what is not acceptable is lack of knowledge that dishonestly claims to be knowledge. Thus we still hear top scientists maintaining in the media that no properly conducted studies have ever found claims for the existence for survival or for psychic abilities to be anything other than nonsense. Such behavior is not only misleading but very poor science. A cardinal rule in science is that you don’t pretend to knowledge that you do not have, particularly when you know that your views carry weight with both colleagues and laypeople. The complexities of modern science and the aura of infallibility that surrounds it mean that many people take the pronouncements of eminent scientists on trust, wrongly believing that such is their distinction in their own fields that they must know what they are talking about when they pronounce on any subject.
The main reason for this uninformed hostility on the part of many scientists towards psychical research is the belief that if psychic abilities exist and if the mind survives death (and is therefore non-physical) many of the most fundamental laws of science would have to be re-written. This claim is of course absurd. The known laws of science have their own range of convenience within which they work perfectly well, and far from challenging them the existence of psychic abilities and of a non-material mind simply adds a new dimension to our understanding, just as quantum mechanics adds a new dimension to Newtonian physics. This fact leads me to suspect that behind this hostility towards psychical research and survival lies the fear that if such things are true they challenge the supremacy of material science. Instead of being the final authority on life and death and everything else, material science simply becomes the science of material things. Many scientists appear to resent the idea of the physics/chemistry/biology triumvirate being dethroned in this way, forgetting that science is really about the search for truth and not about the protection of authority and status.
The second group against which research in survival has to struggle is parapsychology – the very subject that should be most identified with survival research. As Edgar Muller put it in the last issue of the ITC Journal (September 2006) “… survival [research] has a low status within parapsychology. It seems that most parapsychologists endeavor to avoid being connected with the topic.” The reason is of course that parapsychologists believe psychical research will never be accepted by established science if it involves itself in hauntings, séances, mediumship, poltergeist phenomena and anything that goes on outside the laboratory – most particularly research into survival. This attitude dates back to Professor J. B. Rhine, who was one of the principal founders of parapsychology, and although more than 25 years have passed since his death parapsychologists still insist on clinging to it – in spite of the fact that the subject is still not accepted among scientists regardless of the extensive range of positive results obtained by it (see e.g. Radin 1997 for an excellent survey). Even demonstrating an interest in the subject risks blighting the career of even the most promising young academic. Sadly it has to be said that the consequence of the efforts by parapsychologists to appeal to established science has therefore not been scientific acceptance. Instead it has been the diversion of attention away from the very subject, survival research, that helped inspire parapsychology in the first place.
Professor William MacDougall, who established what became the parapsychology unit at Duke University with Professor J. B. Rhine in charge, believed like the founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) that mind is non-physical. MacDougall, who served as SPR President in 1920 and whose book Body and Mind remains a classic study of the mind-body relationship, put it that although the SPR takes no formal position on such issues its principal aim “is to obtain, if possible, empirical evidence that human personality may and does survive in some sense and degree the death of the body,” and adds that “A considerable mass of evidence pointing in this direction has been accumulated” (MacDougall 1928 page 347). MacDougall also insisted that his own theory of the mind-body relationship, which he called Animism, “is the only psycho-physical hypothesis which is compatible with a belief in any continuance of human personality after death” and points out its relevance “[now that] for the first time serious attempts are being made to discover empirical evidence of such survival; and the fact that these attempts seem already to justify hope of their success ….” (ibid page 202).
Most parapsychologists seem to have forgotten – if they have ever read – MacDougall’s wise words. And even those parapsychologists who do show some interest in survival research seem to incline towards the view that communications from the deceased can best be explained by the SuperESP theory mentioned earlier. However, not only do results show the inadequacy of this explanation in the context of ITC, it is unconvincing even when applied to mediumship. The notion that mediums may, unconsciously and while deceiving themselves that the deceased are responsible, be capable of hunting through living minds and through the environment for information associated with the deceased even though they have no clue where to look and no emotional connection with the people or the information concerned stretches credulity beyond the bounds of possibility (I have set out these arguments and others more fully in Fontana 2004 and 2005).
The third group that has traditionally opposed survival research, established religion, should in theory also be among its strongest supporters. Established religion has across the centuries typically equated communications from the beyond with the powers of evil arguing, attributing them to impersonations by demons. The justification for this point of view is sometimes said to come from Exodus Chapter 22 Verse 18 of the Bible when Moses informs the people that one of God’s ‘social ordinances’ is that ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. However, the word ‘witch’ seems to have been chosen by the translators to satisfy their own prejudices, as the Latin word is veneficus which is more correctly translated as ‘poisoner’. Even King Saul (Samuel I Chapter 28) who banished all those with ‘familiar spirits’ (spirit guides) from the land pays a visit to one of them himself when he wants to consult the spirit of Samuel to tell him the outcome of his impending battle with the Philistines Samuel duly appears and tells Saul in no uncertain terms that he has lost favour with God and not only will he be defeated he will perish along with his sons in the battle – all of which turns out to be correct.
Saul’s loss of favor with God – together with the Bible’s account of his generally shabby behaviour during much of his reign – hardly suggests he is a suitable role model on how to treat those with ‘familiar spirits’ (i.e. spirit guides). Given therefore that there seems no Biblical objection to ‘familiar spirits’, we are driven to the conclusion that the attitude of the Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant alike) towards converse with the departed stems more from a threat to the authority of the priesthood than from anything else. I am not arguing against religious belief, which is an essential part of human nature, but it seems clear that the teaching which claims that the priesthood are the intermediaries between man and God and the only key holders of the Kingdom of Heaven has been an important obstacle to interest and research into survival. Far from being Biblical, the beginnings of this teaching stretch back to the decision by the Emperor Constantine to make Christianity the state religion of Rome, and thus were always more political than religious. The result of them is that we in the West lag far behind the cultures of the East, whose psycho-physical systems such as Hinduism and Buddhism have extensive and detailed teachings both on survival and on the nature of the afterlife.
The General Public
The fourth group, the general public – particularly the general public in Britain and in the USA – do not so much oppose survival research as show little interest in it. We are in fact the only generation in which the subject of death has been so widely ignored. Right through to the mid 20th Century and World War Two people lived with the reality of death. In the earlier part of the Century large numbers of children died young, and even for adults death was a constant companion. In the 16th Century scholars kept skulls on their desks as momento mori, and in Britain the Victorians and Edwardians in the 19th and early 20th Century frequently wore lockets containing tresses of hair from deceased loved ones. Catholic countries had their Day of the Dead on November 2nd, and this is one of the few remembrances that are still observed. Apart from this, the reality of death is largely ignored. In earlier times people fell sick, declined and for the most part died at home, and the tragedy of death was forever present. Advances in medical care and public health mean that we are the first generation in recorded history insulated from many of the reminders of our own mortality. Together with the growth of consumerism and the prevalence of materialistic philosophies, this has led to a general resistance to any talk of leaving this life and of what might happen next. There is also a failure to recognize that belief in an afterlife does not distract us from trying to improve this life. Instead it gives this life meaning and purpose and increases our awareness of its sacred nature and of the need to cherish the physical world and the opportunities it gives to us.
We have reached a point in human history where many people now realize that science cannot provide us with answers to life’s fundamental questions, that we have pushed consumerism past its sustainable limits, and that materialism does not provide the route either to individual happiness or to a future for our planet. Together with the advances currently being made in survival research – and particularly in ITC – we may find that opposition from the four groups we have identified begins to weaken, meaning that at the very least the results of research into survival will begin to be taken more seriously. The problem may then be that parapsychologists, recognizing the importance of the PPOs produced by ITC, may attempt to claim the subject as their own and to take much of the credit for its development. We can but wait and see.
- Fontana, D. (2004). Survival research: opposition and future developments. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 68.4 (877), 193-209.
- Fontana, D. (2005). Is There an Afterlife? Alresford: John Hunt.
- MacDougall, W. (1928). Body and Mind. London: Methuen (7th edn.).
- Radin, D. (1997). The Conscious Universe. San Francisco: Harper Edge.