Survival?: Death as a Transition, by David Lorimer

Lorimer Survival cvr

David Lorimer’s Survival?: Death as a Transition is a more snappily-titled reprint of his 1984 Survival?: Body, Mind and Death in the Light of Psychic Experience, with a new introduction and minus 16 pages of footnotes, and also frustratingly minus an index.  Lorimer gathers together material from a diverse range of disciplines that bear on the mind-body problem, and its ramifications for the possibility of life after death.  His erudite survey is divided into two main sections, ‘historical’ and ‘empirical’.  The first, longer, part examines the history of ideas about death from animism in ancient times to recent(ish) thinking on the relationships between ‘body, brain, mind and death’.  The second considers such lines of evidence as apparitions, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and post-mortem communications received via mediums, in order to explicate the implications of those relationships.

Despite the apparent even-handedness implied by the question mark in the title, the new subtitle lays Lorimer’s cards on the table.  This is not an attempt to evaluate the data without preconceptions, but begins from the assumption that there is life after death – as might be expected from a key figure in such organisations as the Scientific and Medical Network and the Wrekin Trust.  His stated approach is to assess the evidence in a legal rather than a scientific manner, acknowledging that the spontaneous nature of experiences does not lend them to experimentation; he is certainly more at home discussing philosophy than he is experimental parapsychology, which is conspicuously absent.  Instead he examines the internal coherence of these experiences in an attempt to formulate theories that will encompass them, assuming of course that the description of the experience is accurate and the interpretation is valid.

He notes that Survival? lays the groundwork for its companion, Resonant Mind: Life Review in the Near-Death Experience, itself a reprint of his 1990 book Whole in One, republished in 2017 by White Crow Books.  Together they are a fine achievement of synthesis and should be on the shelf of anyone with a serious interest in life after death, but at times Survival? can be a frustrating read, particularly the historical section, which though broad in scope covers so much ground it is unable to treat topics in depth, with numerous significant thinkers rushed onto and off the page, and is so compacted it becomes heavy going.  It is also dated in some respects: Bishop Berkeley’s writings may have been proscribed ‘in certain Eastern European countries’ in 1984 for contradicting ‘the basis of dialectical materialism’, but I am fairly sure they are not now.  The section on near-death studies is the weakest as it implies that nothing has happened in NDE research since Kenneth Ring and Michael Sabom’s groundbreaking work.

On the contrary, it could be argued that much has occurred in the field of survival studies (if the various approaches covered by this book can be characterised as a homogeneous field), particularly scrutiny of NDEs, to justify a new version rather than a reprint, taking into consideration recent developments.  However, Lorimer states in his introduction to the new edition that his analysis and conclusions have not altered significantly in the 35 years since he wrote Survival?, and the issues remain much as they did in the early 1980s.  If that is so, I am not sure whether to be heartened by the implication that we are still on the right track a third of a century later, or depressed that all we seem to have been doing, despite the massive recent expansion of the literature, is dotting i’s and crossing t’s.  As Lorimer has not bothered to include anything in his bibliography after 1984 presumably he feels later publications to be superfluous.  On balance I suspect I am justified in my sense that, for all the energetic debate about it, survival research is making little headway, but I would like to be proved wrong.

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