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Bas van Rijn defends PhD dissertation on afterlife research

On 22 September, LUCSoR alumnus Bas van Rijn successfully defended his PhD dissertation entitled “The Experimental Culture of Afterlife Research: Attempts by Spiritual Animal Magnetizers to Prove Life after Death” at Universität Bern, Switzerland. The PhD project was part of the of SNF research project ‘Experiments with Experience: Experimenting with Religions and Spiritual Practice as Experimentation’. Jens Schlieter (Bern) acted as promotor and Markus Davidsen (LUCSoR) as co-promoter. For its excellent quality, the dissertation was awarded the note ‘6’ (summa cum laude).

Markus Davidsen
Left: Markus Davidsen (co-promotor), middle: Bas van Rijn (candidate), right: Jens Schliefter (promotor) picture credits: Sarah Perez.

The topic of Van Rijn’s dissertation is the ‘experimental culture of afterlife research,’ i.e. the experimental logic and mentality that has characterised afterlife research since 1784. ‘Afterlife research,’ an original term introduced by Van Rijn, refers here to religiously motivated attempts to prove the continued existence of the soul after the death of the body. The dissertation focusses on spiritual animal magnetism, i.e. a branch of animal magnetism popular roughly in the period 1784 to 1840, where magnetizers put somnambulists into a form of trance (‘magnetic sleep’) that allegedly allowed them to communicate with spirits or visit Heaven in the spirit. Particular attention is given to three important spiritual magnetizers from the first half of the nineteenth century, namely George Bush in America, Louis-Alphonse Cahagnet in France, and Petrus Jacobus Siemelink in the Netherlands. But many other types of afterlife research are discussed as well, including contemporary near-death experience research.

A conceptual framework for analysing the experimental culture of afterlife research

Extending well beyond the individual cases, the theoretical ambition of the dissertation is to establish a new paradigm for analysing and theorising the experimental logic of afterlife research as such. To do so, Van Rijn constructs a ‘conceptual framework’ that identifies three problems that all afterlife researchers face, as well as some possible solutions they have conceived of. The primary problem is that the afterlife cannot be researched empirically and directly. All afterlife researchers deal with this problem by using intermediaries, i.e. somnambulists or mediums who in a special state of consciousness are believed to be able to bridge the border between the empirical and the superempirical worlds. The use of intermediaries, however, brings about a secondary problem: the trustworthiness of intermediaries can be cast in doubt. Van Rijn identifies several processes of verification that afterlife researchers may bring to bear on the secondary problem. When several intermediaries, independently of each other, provide the same answer, Van Rijn speaks of ‘horizontal verification.’ Successful empirical tests of the special abilities of intermediaries (e.g., that they can accurately describe a person they have not seen), may furthermore heighten the trustworthiness of a given intermediary’s reports about superempirical matters, too. In such cases Van Rijn speaks of ‘vertical verification.’ ‘Experimental regulation,’ in turn, stands for careful preparation and documentation of experimental procedures. ‘Personal verification,’ finally, is a broad category that covers descriptions of the experimental logic that may allow the audience to ‘virtually witness’ the experiments even though they were not physically present, as well as invitations to the audience to contribute to future experimentation (as witnesses, intermediaries, or fellow experimenters). Toulmin’s model for argumentation analysis is used to identify the argumentative functions of the various processes of verification. Horizontal verification, for example, provides additional data, whereas vertical verification is designed to refute rebuttals. The case studies in the dissertation mainly focus on the various ways afterlife researchers attempt to enhance the trustworthiness of their intermediaries. As Van Rijn points out, experimental data are never enough to prove the existence of an afterlife. This is the tertiary problem that all afterlife researchers face. An interpretative leap from data to explanation is always necessary, and there will always be an alternative, sceptic, interpretation possible (e.g., the visions resulted from the imagination). To circumvent the tertiary problem, all afterlife researchers need to supply extra-experimental arguments to support their own, religious, interpretation of the experimental data.

Persuasion in religion

By analysing the experimental procedures and rhetoric of afterlife researchers, Van Rijn’s dissertation sheds important new light on a central problem in the study of religion: how are claims about the superempirical made plausible and persuasive? In his dissertation, Van Rijn skilfully combines approaches from science studies, religious studies (esp. regarding legitimisation in alternative religion), and argumentation analysis to get at this problem. In his introductory presentation at the defence, he stated that he hopes in the future pursue, in collaboration with other scholars, his theoretical interest in religious persuasion beyond the empirical field of afterlife research.

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