Roger Straughan’s latest book, The Medium and the Minister: Who on Earth Knows about the Afterlife? (6th Books, John Hunt Publishing, 2022), is his most recent foray into the area of psychical research, particularly afterlife research. It has already attracted a lot of attention, being described by reviewers as unique, absorbing, balanced and lucid. It explores, as no other book does, the tensions which have arisen from the conflicts between traditional religion, spiritualism and psychical research, which he believes are a major reason why so many people feel uncomfortable about even considering the possibility of an afterlife. Emphasis is laid on the challenges posed by psychical research and spiritualism to orthodox institutional religion as the ultimate authority for information and teaching about the afterlife, with prominence given to the campaigns of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge, which aimed to publicise the psychical evidence for survival. This is followed by detailed case studies of later psychical evidence and the defensive reactions of religious authorities.
Roger argues that one of the most important questions we can ask is whether or not we believe that there may be some form of life after our death. Anyone prepared to consider the possibility of life after death is faced with a fundamental choice: between a materialistic view of life and one which allows for the possibility of some form of spiritual dimension beyond the known limits of the physical world. That choice is a very stark one. Are we just a random cocktail of chemicals and atoms, destined to disintegrate when the cells of our bodies and brains die? If so, it must follow that when you’re dead you’re dead, and that’s all there is to it. Or is it conceivable that we might be something more permanent than that, something that has the capacity for survival and further development? Could this life be part of a bigger picture which we can at present get only brief and disjointed glimpses of? Which one of these two options we choose to accept cannot help but form part of our whole view of the world. That view includes our attitude towards others and ourselves, which in turn must shape the kind of person we become and the ways we behave.
Evidence is an all-important word in Roger’s vocabulary and he shows that there are various kinds of evidence available to us in making our judgment. He is at pains to emphasise that evidence must not be confused with ‘proof’ and that it’s a mistake to think in terms of possible ‘proof’ here. It is as impossible to prove that there is life after as it is to prove that that there is not, if by ‘proof’ we mean 100% guaranteed certainty. In fact, that degree of certainty isn’t possible anywhere. Unshakeable proof does not exist in experimental science, as there is always the possibility of later experiments and findings overturning the provisional results of earlier ones. On a more practical level, verdicts are reached and accepted in criminal courts of law on the basis not of absolute ‘proof’, but of reasonable probability as presented by the evidence. The same sort of judgment has to be made about the probability of life after death, and this book shows that there is a huge amount of relevant evidence to help us make it.
One source of this evidence is personal experience, and a mountain of data has accumulated over the years, based on people’s accounts of such phenomena as near-death experiences and apparent after-death communications of all kinds. Some of these experiences can no doubt be ‘explained away’ by sceptics, but it is the cumulative effect of all this material that Roger finds so impressive and convincing.
It was in fact his own personal experiences that led Roger to write his previous book on this subject. This was entitled A Study in Survival: Conan Doyle Solves the Final Problem (O Books), and has been described as ‘one of the most fascinating books bearing on the survival question to be published in the last ten years.’ It tells the story of an astonishing and completely unexpected series of apparent communications from a man who died in 1930 and who also appears in the current book – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That story is much too complicated to be retold in any detail here, but it strongly suggests that on some occasions at least a form of psychic link may exist or be established between the author and reader of a book. Roger went to great pains to examine and analyse the extraordinary nature of his experiences to try to find other possible explanations for them, but was finally forced to accept that psychic communication was the only one that made any sense. The messages received via random readings from Conan Doyle’s own writings consistently demonstrated paranormal awareness of a wide range of events, convincing his daughter and last surviving daughter, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, of their authenticity.
Conan Doyle had himself drawn attention to this psychic link in one of his lesser-known books, Through the Magic Door, which described his own favourite books. Amazingly, Roger came across this book, which he had never seen before, at exactly the time when he was writing about the method of communication he seemed to be experiencing. He believes that Conan Doyle’s words are worth pondering by any thoughtful author, even if they are not taken too literally:
Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it…. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command …. The dead are such good company…. But best of all when the dead man’s wisdom and the dead man’s example give us guidance and strength in the living of our own strenuous days…. If you picked any book (of mine), you would be picking a little fibre also from my mind, very small no doubt, and yet an intimate and essential part of what is now myself.
Not surprisingly after reading this when he did, Roger was convinced that he was indeed in touch with a ‘dead’ author, and Conan Doyle’s words have been a strong influence on how he now views books and the whole activity of reading and writing them.
Roger’s previous books, written during his career as a university academic, were on various aspects and applications of philosophy, and he has often been challenged about how a tough-minded analytic philosopher could find himself writing about way-out psychical/spiritual subjects. He insists that there is really no incompatibility here, as his approach as a philosopher is to follow in the footsteps of Socrates by always trying to clarify important issues and the language used to discuss them by asking the simple-sounding questions, ‘What do you mean?’ and ‘How do you know? His many books and journal articles applied this method to a wide range of practical and ethical topics, ranging from teaching and education (eg. Can We Teach Children to be Good?) to genetic engineering (eg. Improving Nature?) This passion for clarification, analysis and evidence has found expression in all of Roger’s work, whatever the subject matter.