Survival of Consciousness: What Is the Most Persuasive Scientific Evidence?

November 24, 2021
Science Team

Our award-winning submission to the BICS essay contest may have the answer.

People throughout history and across all cultures have believed in some sort of afterlife — and there is a significant amount of scientific evidence that supports this belief. Our team at IONS recently submitted a paper on the survival of human consciousness after death to an essay contest hosted by the Bigelow Institute for Conscious Studies (BICS). We are pleased to announce that we were one of 29 winners of the contest, which saw a total of 205 essay submissions from over 1000 initial applicants.

What Was the BICS Essay Award About?

The BICS essay award was created to help raise awareness about and stimulate research on the survival of human consciousness after physical death. Winners of the contest were awarded for presenting the best summary of evidence on this topic. The question posed by this essay competition was, “What is the best available evidence for the survival of human consciousness after permanent bodily death?” In our essay submission, we used a multi-faceted approach to answer this question.

Summary of Our Award-winning Essay

Bigelow Institute for Conscious Studies (BICS) Award

Though there is significant scientific evidence for the survival of consciousness, many who consider themselves to be agnostic on the subject don’t believe the evidence is strong enough to be convincing. In our essay, IONS outlines a series of scientific experiments that, if successful, would significantly strengthen the evidence.

For our process, we first defined the meaning of “survival of consciousness” according to five levels of awareness, subjective perception of the environment, and personal identity. Our next step was to determine nine categories of evidence for survival, with each category assigned a letter grade (A through F) for the strength of the evidence. Using these categories, we then proposed 10 experiments on understanding the survival of consciousness to see which would most persuade academic professionals about the existence of survival.

Because people who firmly believe or disbelieve are already set in their ways, our study focused on addressing those who have yet to make up their minds about survival. For this group of people (called agnostics), we wanted to evaluate what evidence would help persuade them into believing about the survival of human consciousness after permanent physical death. To do this, we presented our 10 proposed experiments to over 400 academics from major universities in the United States to see which they would view as most persuasive.

Our survey data revealed that — regardless of current belief in the survival of consciousness, religious or spiritual affiliation, or occupation — participants believed that positive results from three types of experiments would be most persuasive. These three experiments were based on evaluating out-of-body and near-death experiences (OBE/NDE), the use of mediums, or reincarnation. Interestingly enough, these same experiments also received the highest letter grades within our A (highest) through F (lowest) grading scheme, which means participants selected the highest rated experiments even if they may not be especially familiar with the evidence of survival in literature.

So Why Is Improving Evidence on Survival Important?

Well first off, belief in the survival of human consciousness after death has proven health benefits, including improved well-being, tranquility, outlook on life, and lower mortality and psychiatric symptoms. The question of survival is also part of the existential “big questions” asked at some point by every single human being that were traditionally answered by religion. But with the decline in religion and rise of science, it is our duty to seriously address this age-old question.

Another important reason for investigating this topic is to address the concept of human beings (and our universe) existing as products of random and meaningless incidents, lacking any true purpose. This nihilistic philosophy is not only deeply unsatisfying but it also considerably contributes to the worst human vices: envy, greed, and selfishness. The issue of survival presents a major challenge, but perhaps may also serve as an antidote to this nihilism.

Major Take-away from the BICS Contest and Essay

The belief in an afterlife has existed across histories and cultures, following us even into modern times. While belief is often motivated by factors such as cultural expectations, religious faith, existential angst, or personal experiences like a near-death experience or after-death communication, we reveal in our essay that people may be persuaded to believe in an afterlife if provided with certain types of scientific evidence.

It is important that we remain in a state of curiosity and focus on improving our methods of exploration into survival after death. The belief in the survival of human consciousness can help promote health and provide answers to existential questions. It can also, perhaps, serve as a solution to human vices in our society—and from that perspective alone, we believe that this topic deserves continued research and support.

Read the IONS Essay

Browse All the Award-winning Essays

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