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Is a soul conscious after death?

A distinguished group of Catholic bioethicists had gathered in a conference room of a Washington, D.C., hotel to discuss the topic of brain death. When my turn came for a presentation, I was in for a shock.

Edward J. Furton

Within 10 minutes, the room grew uneasy. There were quizzical looks and the shuffling of papers. One of the attendees became angry and began to shout. His words were at first unintelligible — they included complex Latin quotations — but it became clear that he was objecting to my statement that the intellective soul survives the death of the body.

The discussion continued for weeks afterwards via email. To my surprise, I discovered that the majority of these distinguished thinkers did not know that the soul continues in conscious existence after separation from the body. One influential figure told me that at death, the soul went into a deep unconscious state and lacked all awareness. Another said that the soul ceased to exist at all until it was reunited with the resurrected body. Yet the Church teaches that at death there is a “particular judgment” that either unites the soul with the life of Christ in heaven (often through purgatory) or condemns it to eternal damnation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1021). This event precedes the “last judgment” and the resurrection of the dead (CCC #1038).

Death is the separation of the soul from the body, but the soul does not lose consciousness — or cease to exist — when it undergoes that separation. The soul is fully aware of the particular judgment. This is not to deny in any way that the soul is the substantial form of the body. The two form a composite union, but the soul has its own principle of existence, given to it by God. As a spiritual entity, the soul doesn’t need the body to exist or to engage in thought. The soul has an “intellective memory” that survives death and can also have new thoughts through God’s direct infusion of ideas into the mind.

These are interesting philosophical inquiries, but they also have some measure of empirical support from a remarkable phenomenon within the field of medicine. Some patients who are dead by standard medical criteria report after resuscitation that they were aware of efforts to revive their bodies and are able to describe specific events that occurred then. Thus a patient might say, “I saw a nurse wearing a red cap enter the room, give the physician a syringe, and then leave.” But during that time the patient had no heartbeat, no brain function, and no signs of life, but lay on the operating table dead.

Revived patients who experience these events often describe a feeling of looking down on the room from above, but the question of location is really not important. What matters from an evidentiary point of view is the accuracy of their accounts. If the soul ceased to exist at death, or fell into a state of complete unconsciousness, it would not be able to know anything. But in these cases, the patient is able to describe details about events connected to the resuscitation that could not possibly have been known unless he or she were somehow still aware.

One of the most comprehensive surveys of this phenomenon is titled “AWARE” (Parnia et al., Resuscitation 85.12, Dec. 2014, 1799-1805). The study shows that 40% of patients who survived cardiac arrest were aware during the time that they were clinically dead. If death is the separation of the soul from the body, as the Church teaches, then these cases should not surprise us. The person has indeed died because the soul has separated from the body, but a successful resuscitation causes the soul to return life to the body. The particular judgment does not take place because death had not been finalized.

Of course, we live in an age of materialism. Those who hold that there is no life after death tell us that these experiences are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain or some other purely material cause. Yet that view cannot explain the factual nature of the accounts. Hallucinations caused by chemical imbalances don’t produce accurate reports.

Given that Church teachings on the nature of the soul are not matters of faith but are evident to reason, such studies provide an important type of empirical evidence. I have met physicians who have experienced this phenomenon, but they are uneasy speaking about it. They fear ridicule from their colleagues. At least they aren’t likely to be shouted at in Latin!

EDWARD J. FURTON, PH.D., is a staff ethicist and the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.