Is There an Afterlife?

The literature on death is voluminous and deserving of its own book length study. What we can do here is briefly discuss a few of the issues involved. Belief in immortality is widespread, as anthropological studies reveal, but most people regard death as the ultimate tragedy and crave continued existence. Yet there is little if any evidence for immortality; and we do not personally know anyone who came back from the dead to tell us about an afterlife. Still, many people cling to any indirect evidence they can—near death experiences, belief in reincarnation, ghost stories, communication with the dead, and the like. The problem is that none of this so-called evidence stands up well to critical scrutiny. It is so much more likely that the propensity of individuals to deceive or be deceived explains such beliefs, than that these phenomena are real. Those who accept such evidence are most likely grasping at straws—engaging in wishful thinking.

Modern science generally ignores this so-called evidence for an afterlife for a number of reasons. First, the supposedly immortal soul plays no explanatory or predictive role in the modern science. Second, overwhelming evidence supports the view that consciousness ceases when brain functioning does. If ghosts or disembodied spirits exist, then we would be forced to rethink much of modern science—such as the belief that consciousness cannot exist without matter.

Of course this cursory treatment of the issue does not establish that an afterlife is impossible, especially since that possibility depends on answers to complicated philosophical questions about personal identity and the mind-body problem. But suffice it to say that explaining either the dualistic theory of life after death—where the soul separates from the body at death and lives forever—or the monist theory—where a new glorified body related to the earthly body lives on forever—is extraordinarily difficult. In the first case substance dualism must be defended, and in the second case the miraculous idea of the new body must be explained. Either way the philosophical task is enormous. Clearly the scientific winds are blowing against these ancient beliefs.

Still when asked about what one thinks about an afterlife, a reasonable response is to reply that one is all for it—assuming it’s pleasant! If it turns out that when we die we really do move to a better neighborhood … great. Yet it is easy to see that this is very unlikely.

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