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Death and the After-life
A quite reasonable human pre-occupation is the matter of what happens on and after death. Sceptics, agnostics and atheists say nothing happens apart from death itself. They say everything associated with life ceases and we become only what we were; living family, distant memories, physical achievements and whatever empires we managed to build here on earth which survive us.
Christian believers take a more lofty and optimistic view and insist that a part of us-the Soul- lives on in communion with some sort of spiritual grace. We believe that a person’s soul leaves the body at death and continues on in fullness with God in heaven. There are of course variations on this. Some Christian faiths put obstacles in the way of making it to heaven based on the veracity and prosecution of the person’s faith before death. Some people have no hope it would seem. A measure of creativity would be needed to suggest a way that Hitler’s soul might make it into the Arms of the Father. I may tackle the matter of forgiveness in a later article though with Hitler we may have an intractable subject.
Catholic (and some other) Christians believe in the bodily resurrection of Our Lord and of his mother Mary. Witnesses to these events were few and far between and we rely on their writings after the event to inform us. A certain amount of faith is needed here. To all believers of whatever persuasion, “faith” is a given. We Christians have Faith. We do not need to have seen with our own eyes. This means we look disparagingly (though with Christian sympathy) on those who insist on “proof” of some kind to explain godly mysteries. Much has been written on “proof” most of it asking for a fair amount of faith in accepting the arguments put forward. Perhaps the safest way to proceed is to argue that scripture is an account of what happened-and of what is happening-with added metaphors to help those reading the material at the time of writing. Of course you need faith to accept that premise too. It seems that faith and proof constantly intermingle, sorely troubling those who insist on rigorous explanations for Holy Mysteries.
Let us concern ourselves with the “soul”. Argument has raged for millennia about the form, function and ultimate fate of a person’s soul (assuming persons have souls). Attempts have been made to measure properties of the soul scientifically and as early as the 17th century sperm were said to have souls –as well as being able to carry out human functions like digestion! Thus a person’s soul came from the male line and bad luck if father happened not to resemble a saint. Others argued that the soul only appeared at conception and Descartes said that a person’s soul resided in their brain. Animals were dissected on this basis to see if a soul could be discovered- disregarding the view that many Christians believe animals do not have souls. Anyway much cutting up of deceased animals failed to find any presence of a soul- possibly because if there had been one it might have already departed!
Some most interesting and bizarre experiment have been conducted to see if the departure of the soul from a body could be detected by weighing at the point of death. Some of the most intricate experiments were conducted in America (where else I hear you say?). Obviously careful preparation was needed to ensure that no weight loss occurred in the experiment due to losses of body fluids or solids. Other, less savoury, precautions included picking a prospective cadaver which would not jump around too much at the point of death and lighter subjects were preferred which could be accommodated on the weighing machines of the day. Generally consumptive patients fulfilled the requirements and were readily available prior to the discovery of antibiotics. Niceties concerning the actual moment of death were obviated by assuming that the absence of vital signs meant that it was all over. No haggling over brain death, or any other sort of death.
Initial results were encouraging. An American experimenter published a study showing that a sudden detectable weight loss of 21 gram had been reliably measured for humans. This was certainly consistent with something leaving the body at the point of death. Experimenters immediately scaled the 21g down to allow for sheep and mouse-sized subjects (these caused fewer ethical problems and were much easier to obtain). Thus figures were obtained for the expected weight loss on death, due to the departure of the soul, from sheep and mice. The experimental findings from a large number of experiments, alas, were inconclusive. They provoked one experimenter to measure the mass of the exhalations of a drowning mouse to see if that figure had influenced the result. It hadn’t. These results ultimately threw doubt on the original experiments with humans and re-doing these experiments did not always support the initial observations. Thus the work failed the fundamental scientific test of repeatability.
The situation was complicated even more when an American study in the 20th century showed that for sheep, anyway, a gain in weight could be observed at the point of death. This is hardly consistent with the loss of “something” on dying.
Inevitably Theoretical Physics was invoked to help out. You will know that Einstein said mass and energy are equivalent forms of the same physical entity. His famous equation
E = MC2
Shows that energy (E) is related to mass (M) via the speed of light (C). Thus it was argued that perhaps the passage from alive to corpse involved some release of energy, and thus mass. Elaborate experiments failed to find definite evidence of this and the studies were extended to propose that since at death there is an increase in disorganisation (senses collapse for instance) there might be a sudden increase in Entropy. Entropy measures the degree of organisation present in any system and it can be combined with energy to predict whether or not a process will occur. A quantity called Free Energy may be calculated. Free Energy may be viewed as a form of “overall” energy change which includes a measure of the amount of order as well as energy changes. So far, though, no results have been reported which reliably support a Free Energy change occurring immediately upon death. No doubt experiments continue though, at the last check, no institution seems to wish to admit having a faculty pursuing them.
So where does that leave us? Probably where we began: needing faith, above all, to believe in the soul and its ultimate resting place in heaven. Why indeed should a soul have mass or form or indeed anything? To the faithful having a soul is no more mysterious than believing in the Holy Spirit. And anyone who can believe in the Holy Trinity: God The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit being subsumed into one Being is likely to encounter no mental obstruction to believing in souls. Perhaps part of the holy mystery of life is NOT knowing too much that is definite about the end of it.

Further Reading: "Spooks" by Mary Roach, Text Publishing 2005