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Global Health Centre

An Empirical Science of the Spirit: (Near-) Death and Postmaterialist Science in Japan, Switzerland and North-America

PhD Supervisor: Vinh-Kim Nguyen
Funding Organisation: Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), Doc.CH scheme. 
Timeline: September 2023 – August 2026
Budget: CHF 206,812
Keywords: ethnology, Switzerland, consciousness, death, postmaterialsm, anthropology, science and technology studies, Japan, near-death experience, bioscience, medical anthropology, near death studies



Mainstream bioscientific and biomedical models of human conscious experience are dominated by materialist explanations of its production (through the physical processes of the brain) and its limits (at biological death). As such, humans are conceived of scientifically as biological entities whose lives end with the cessation of bodily or cerebral functioning. Contrarily, the emergent discipline of near-death studies (NDS), concerned with explaining the experiences of those who have died and come back to life, offers what I refer to as a ‘postmaterialist’ position.

Postmaterialism, while not precluding the involvement of physical processes, is defined by its openness to the possibility of non-material characteristics or functions of conscious experience, and the potential for it to continue after biological death. NDS researchers frame their work as an act of resistance against a stagnating scientific materialism, and offer that we sit on the cusp of a Kuhnian scientific revolution. They also express a moral impetus for their research by linking alienating and objectifying medical practices to the persistence of a materialist dogma in science and medicine, and propose that adopting a postmaterialist position could foster a more humane medical practice.

Building on literature that reveals death as a sociotechnical phenomenon, as well as a site of moral and political intervention, this research will undertake a multi-sited anthropological analysis of the practices and narratives of postmaterialist NDS, in Japan, Switzerland and North America, to explore how ongoing struggles to understand and define the boundary between life and death are acting as a catalyst for a scientific and political movement from the margins of institutional bioscience.


Research Questions

This research asks questions at three levels:

i) the level of the concept: What philosophical presuppositions underpin scientists’ approaches to death? What are the ontological implications of institutionalising an “empirical science of the spirit” that would collapse diverse spiritualities under the authority of Western science?;

ii) the level of knowledge production: How is death discursively produced, transformed and contested by scientific practitioners? How is death mobilised towards both scientific and political ends? How do local religious and political histories factor in the scientific negotiation of death?;

iii) the level of practice : How is death practically approached by medical practitioners in Switzerland and Japan? What changes in practice are envisioned by postmaterialists?



Methodologically, I will conduct qualitative research (using interviews, participant observation and literature review) in: Tokyo, Japan; Geneva, Switzerland; and digitally in the United States. In terms of academic relevance, this research will contribute to understandings of how death is produced scientifically, and acts at a site of political contest, extending important theory to the contemporary scientific moment.