For many people dying is like moving to a better neighborhood. This is not surprising, as belief in the afterlife is widespread. To sustain this belief, people cling to any indirect evidence they can—near death experiences, tales of reincarnation, stories of ancient miracles, supposed communication with the dead, pseudo-scientific studies, and the like. But none of this so-called evidence stands up to critical scrutiny. Many believe, not because there’s good evidence, but because they want to.
Yet such faith is hard to sustain. Every single moment we are alive confirms at least one truth—those who are dead are dead. We may hear the voices of the deceased in our heads, but we don’t take the departed out to lunch. We could live in a world with evidence for the afterlife—for example one where the dead regularly appeared and described post-mortem existence—but we don’t. Belief in the afterlife is probably just wishful thinking.
As for science, it generally ignores the so-called evidence of an afterlife for many reasons. First, the idea of an immortal soul plays no explanatory or predictive role in the modern scientific study of human beings. For instance, doctors no longer attribute mental illness to demonic possession of our souls—only Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the scientifically illiterate might do that.
Second, the overwhelming evidence suggests that consciousness ceases when brain functioning does. If ghosts or disembodied spirits exist, then we would have to abandon scientific ideas that we hold with great confidence—like the notion that brains generate consciousness. In fact, the idea of a soul is incompatible with everything we know about modern physics—best-selling books to contrary just prey on human credulity.
Professional philosophers also tend to be skeptical of the afterlife, as good arguments for it are virtually non-existent. Moreover, almost all philosophers today are physicalists regarding the mind. This means that mind—or soul if it even exists—depends on the body. In other words, when the body dies our consciousness is extinguished; there is no ghost in the machine.
Of course this cursory treatment doesn’t establish the impossibility of an afterlife; after all, reality is mysterious. Still, given what we know about how our brains work, disembodied consciousness is unlikely. Clearly the scientific and philosophical winds blow against such ancient beliefs, and people increasingly reject belief in god, miracles, and the afterlife.
But if death is the end, how should we feel about it? We might be undisturbed by death, finding consolation in the words of the Greek philosopher Epicurus: “When I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not.” Epicurus taught that fear of the gods and death is irrational. If we think about death, we will see that it’s not bad for us since we have no sensations after death. Yes, the process of dying can be bad, and our deaths may hurt others, but Epicurus argued that death can’t be bad for the deceased. For how can what we don’t know hurt us?
We could reject this argument, claiming that we can be harmed by something without being aware of it. For example, intelligent adults reduced to the state of infancy by a brain injury suffer a great misfortune, even if unaware of their injurious state. Perhaps the dead are similarly harmed. But we can still ask, how can the dead be harmed? Perhaps Epicurus is right after all, death shouldn’t trouble us.
Yet despite Epicurus’ argument, we may still find the idea of our death unsettling. For one day the sun will set for the very last time for us, and every thought and memory we have ever had will … vanish. When we are gone we will no longer read books, take trips, or hear familiar voices. We will never take another walk, catch another baseball, or play in the snow. We won’t know about new music, inventions, ideas or what will happen to our children or grandchildren. This is why we don’t want to die.
In response we could hope that science and technology save us, and there are plausible scientific scenarios whereby death might be overcome. Still, such technology probably won’t be developed in time to avoid our own deaths. We could also buy a cryonics policy, but there are no guarantees this would work, or that we would wake up in a reality that we would want to live in.
Moreover, even if we did extend our lives indefinitely, the universe itself is doomed. In that case, life seems pointless. For how can anything matter if all ends in nothingness? The only way around this conclusion is if our descendents become gods and somehow escape the death of the cosmos. Unfortunately, such fantastic futures aren’t only unlikely, they also don’t comfort us when we look at our spouse or our children and realize that someday we’ll never see them again. Never. Death doesn’t care about our desires; our attitude toward death appears irrelevant; raging against death seems futile. As Philip Larkin wrote:
… Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
For now, with the reality of death looming, resignation and acceptance probably serve us best. Yet we can find some consolation—all is not lost. For if our interests are large enough, if we detach ourselves from the concerns of our little egos, if we identify with something large like the future of cosmic evolution, then there is a good chance that what we care about will continue. Maybe such thoughts can lessen the sting of death.
Most importantly, if we truly feel the reality of death, we might be kinder to each other. If the thought of our non-existence has any value, this may be it. For all the pain we cause each other is pointless against the backdrop of eternal nothingness. If we are all dying together, why not be nicer to each other, why not fill our little time with less pain? Maybe, if we could see ourselves from this cosmic point of view, we could even say with the poets, that what survives of us is love.
This may be too poetic, and it may not be all we want. But love is remarkable. It appears in a world of cruelty and savagery, in a species whose roots are “red in tooth and claw.” Love brings the peace of knowing that someone cares for us, waits for us, listens to us. In the unfathomable infinity of space and time, in the infinite cold and darkness which surrounds us, love relieves loneliness, love connects us, love sustains us. And perhaps the traces of our love do somehow reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us. Perhaps love doesn’t disappear into nothingness; perhaps love can be perfected; perhaps love is stronger than death.