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The Ethereal Body as a Means of Survival

by Frank W. Quillen

Frank W. Quillen is currently a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Tennessee. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 30-34, Vol. 9, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1979. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Some Whiteheadians have sought to affirm a subjective survival of death by defending the notion of a disembodied soul. Such a concept is fraught with difficulties, and this is no less true when it is considered within a Whiteheadian framework. John B. Bennett (PS 4:131f) has called attention to some of these. In Whitehead’s view, the body is related to the soul both as a protective device and also as a "complex amplifier." Since the body has a complexity of order which procures contrasts, Bennett argues that the soul without the body could have no fresh experiences, but would rather be confined to memories of past experiences it had when in an embodied state. Without the body, the soul would lack the variety of content and the degree of novelty that are exemplified by a living person; it would even lack the capacities required to be an enduring object, since it would have no means of interaction with an environment. Bennett concludes that Whitehead’s system does not provide the conditions necessary for the ongoing life of a disembodied soul, but he admits that this does not rule out the possibility of the soul’s continuing in a new body. If subjective immortality is to be confirmed within a Whiteheadian framework, then a resurrection body is needed rather than a disembodied soul.

It is not difficult to understand why philosophers have been unwilling to affirm the crude notion of resurrection when understood as the reanimation of a physical corpus. The notion of an ethereal or "astral" body, however, deserves much more consideration from philosophers than it has previously received. While such an idea, when examined from a materialistic perspective, sounds ‘much like Ryle’s "ghost-in-the-machine," the etheric body conceived in terms of Whiteheadian occasions of experience might not be so far-fetched.

For Whitehead, the soul is a route of occasions. These are very unusual occasions in that they are the only ones that enjoy consciousness, since consciousness can only occur where it is fostered by a sophisticated mentality and novelty. At any moment in the creative process, the soul is synonymous with the regnant or dominant occasion within this route that is enjoying its brief subjectivity and attaining satisfaction. Whitehead believed that the route of occasions comprising the soul is to be found in the "empty spaces" in the interstices of the brain. These occasions, according to Cobb’s understanding of Whitehead, wander "from place to place according to the richness of the stimuli received at these places." During this process, these regnant occasions must be surrounded by other living occasions, "presumably of the variety found also in the empty spaces of the cell" (CNT 82f).

In Religion in the Making, Whitehead distinguished between actual entities constituting routes of mentality and those constituting material routes (RM 110f). The soul would be, of course, a route of mentality. It is accompanied perhaps by other mental routes that serve to store subconscious memories until such time as they are recalled by the regnant occasion. Whitehead refers to the routes of occasions comprising the physical body as "material routes." Now suppose that the physical body develops within itself a network or nexus of occasions that has the ability to exist independently, continuing to support the route of mental occasions comprising the soul and the related mental occasions that accompany it, even after the physical death of the organism. Such a nexus might be made up of physical occasions in such a relationship that they would lack the density of the physical body and, therefore, would perhaps be invisible in the macrocosmic world, at least under most circumstances. The result of such a phenomenon might be something much like the "astral" body of some Eastern and esoteric traditions. We might recall that Whitehead conceived of all space as occupied by actual entities and, in the Dialogues, even speculated that intelligences might exist in what we perceive as empty space (D 192). Such a conception as the "astral" body would certainly not seem impossible then within a Whiteheadian framework.

Although Whitehead himself never entertained such a concept, there is some evidence from other sources that such entities as astral bodies may indeed exist. I shall briefly attempt to examine some of the evidence from the following sources: (1) Eastern religions, (2) esoteric traditions, (3) parapsychological research, and (4) findings of thanatologists.

Teachings of an etheral body are found in some branches of both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In the Vedantist tradition of Hinduism, the linga sharira or subtle body is sometimes considered immaterial, lacking both shape and size, and not occupying space (DEL 315). Some Vedantists, however, hold that it is composed of a subtle kind of matter and that it is extended in space and has both shape and size (DEL 330n). From Mahayana Buddhism, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, originating from the eighth century tantric tradition, teaches that the soul leaves the corpse in a "shining" body which is able to pass through material objects such as doors and walls. This body retains all the senses of the physical body, but it lacks any imperfections such as blindness or deformity that the physical body may have had (LAL 85).

Such Western esoteric traditions as Theosophy, Spiritualism, etc., have also taught the existence of an etheric body. Some of these traditions, borrowing from Eastern sources, hold that the "astral" body permeates the physical body and that it has parts or chakras which are analogous to organs (the word chakra is from Sanskrit, meaning wheel). These chakras are described as "vortices of shifting colors, sounds, and densities." According to some traditions, there are seven major chakras and twenty-one minor ones (RV 134f). While there may be no reason to take the details of such an esoteric teaching seriously, the chakras might be viewed as at least a mythological attempt to express the truth that such an etheric body would have to have different parts in order to perform different functions.

Parapsychologists have shown an interest in investigating claims of what are commonly called out-of-the-body experiences, or "astral projections." Persons who have these experiences believe themselves to be able to leave their physical bodies for temporary periods to move around freely in their "astral" bodies, or "etheric doubles." Many persons who have had these experiences believe that this astral body will be the vehicle for their survival of death. At the time of death, they believe that a kind of umbilical "silver cord" breaks, releasing them from their ties to the physical plane. After these "astral projections," some persons have provided impressive information about events going on in places that they supposedly visited while in such a peculiar state, and many of their reports have been corroborated. It is difficult to verify the experiences themselves, however, since only a small number of such persons believe themselves capable of producing these states on demand under laboratory conditions. One might suggest telepathy or clairvoyance as possible alternative explanations for the knowledge accumulated during these states but, if the out-of-the-body experience is itself a fantasy, it is difficult to account for the uniformity of the experiences, since common characteristics have been reported at greatly different times and from greatly different cultural settings (LWD 124f).

Perhaps the most widely publicized reports of etheric bodies have come from the recent efforts of thanatologists to gather data concerning the experiences of patients whose normal life functions have ceased for brief periods of time, although such persons were later resuscitated. During the brief time these patients were, to all outward appearances, dead, they experienced themselves leaving their physical bodies in a body of a more ethereal and flexible kind. While these bodies sometimes seemed to conform to the general shape and appearance of the physical body, at other times they seemed to assume more varied shapes. Raymond A. Moody, Jr., in Life After Life, quotes a patient as follows:

It was another body . . . but not another regular human body. It’s a little bit different. It was not exactly like a human body, but it wasn’t any big glob of matter, either. It had form to it, but no colors, and I know I still had something you could call hands. (LAL 40)

Likewise, a similar report from another patient:

I kept getting in and out of my physical body, and I could see it from directly above. But, while I did, I was still in a body -- not a physical body, but something I can best describe as an energy pattern. If I had to put it into words, I would say that it was transparent, a spiritual as opposed to a material being. Yet, it definitely had different parts. (LAL 40)

Although some of the patients reported a sense of "timelessness" during these experiences, which would at first glance appear to rule out a Whiteheadian interpretation, it is obvious from their reports that a real temporal sequence was very much in evidence.

With so many diverse sources pointing to the possible existence of an "astral" or ethereal body, one cannot help but wonder why philosophers have given so little attention to this possibility. Anthony Flew in his article "Immortality" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy refers to the concept of the etheric body as the "shadow-man doctrine." Flew cites the fact that the doctrine is found in the writings of some of the Christian Fathers, most notably Tertullian in his De Anima. The first attempt to deal with the concept by a first-rate philosopher was undertaken by St. Thomas Aquinas. While Flew admits that the etheric body notion at first sight seems to be the most promising way of affirming the possibility of another life beyond death, he dismisses the doctrine for two reasons: (1) he believes that the existence of such a body should be empirically detectable, yet no real empirical evidence seems to exist; and (2) he believes the notion to be tied up with sightings of apparitions, etc., which he thinks can be better explained as hallucinatory (EP 4:140).

Flew’s first point is well taken. While some experimentation of the sort he would approve has been attempted, it has been conducted rather crudely and thus far has not been particularly promising. Duncan MacDougall was one such researcher who made an attempt at the beginning of the century to prove that the vehicle for continued life must have weight, take up space, and possess other physical characteristics. He proceeded to place dying patients in a bed on a weighing platform. There was a gradual loss of weight over the last few hours of life which was to be expected as the result of moisture loss. This weight loss was measured in one case as amounting to twenty-eight grams an hour. At the moment of death, however, a sudden loss of twenty-one grams was registered. He repeated the experimentation using other patients with similar results. Subsequent attempts to repeat MacDougall’s experiment, however, were unsuccessful, and this particular type of experimentation has generally been forgotten. Jacobson suggests that new experiments with more recent technical resources might be successful in ascertaining a possible energy field around the body other than the heat waves that are known to exist (LWD 151). Perhaps the kind of empirical evidence Flew demands will someday be forthcoming.

Flew’s second reason for dismissing the etheric body is rather inadequate. It is true that people have sometimes identified the sightings of apparitions with the "bodies" of persons who have reported out-of-the-body experiences. There is no reason to believe, however, that such an identification is justified. The sightings of apparitions may involve an altogether different phenomenon than the reports of experiencing an "astral" or etheric body. The dismissal of claims for sighting apparitions is not sufficient ground for dismissing the experiences of an etheric body.

When one considers the claims of those who have reported experiencing an etheric body, he might contend that these claims have more credence when considered in terms of Whiteheadian occasions (or, in keeping with recent physics, energy configurations) than they would have if considered in more traditional substance categories. We must admit, however, that if we stay within a Whiteheadian framework, there are certain problems that demand our consideration. Even if the existence of the etheric body can be proven beyond reasonable doubt, one might object that we have proven survival, but not necessarily immortality. Whitehead pointed out that there is no reason to believe "that a purely spiritual being is necessarily immortal" (RM 110f). The same would hold true for a being inhabiting an etheric body. We have no way of knowing, for example, that the routes of occasions making up such a body will not eventually disperse or simply cease having new members.

Another problem arises in determining just what kind of an environment such a body would inhabit. Would the person be able to communicate with other persons in the same condition? Would such bodies inhabit the same space as that inhabited by our physical bodies? Reports of persons who have had the etheric body experience suggest that these questions can be answered in the affirmative, but how could such affirmations be accounted for within a Whiteheadian framework? It is not my purpose to provide an answer, but I would suggest that such questions should be taken seriously and pondered by Whiteheadian scholars. After all, Whitehead believed that the validity of his metaphysical scheme lay in its ability to account for the full range of human experience, and he suggested further revision and enlargement of his concepts in order to better accomplish this purpose. Much work has yet to be done.



CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965.

D -- Lucien Price, editor. The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. Boston: Little, Brown, 1954.

DEL -- John H. Hick. Death and Eternal Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

EP -- Paul Edwards, editor-in-chief. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1967.

LAL -- Raymond A. Moody, Jr. Life After Life. Atlanta: Mockingbird Books, 1975.

LWD -- Nils O. Jacobson, M.D. Life without Death? New York: Dell Books, 1973.

RV -- Lawrence Blair. Rhythms of Vision: The Changing Patterns of Belief. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

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