Category Archives: Immortality

Is There an Afterlife?

The Fountain of Eternal Life in Cleveland, Ohio is described as symbolizing “Man rising above death, reaching upward to God and toward Peace.”[1]

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 soul which is thought immortal plays no explanatory or predictive role in the modern scientific study of human beings. 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.

So while personal immortality is logically possible, it’s easy enough to see it isn’t plausible. I live under the assumption that my consciousness depends on a functioning brain, and as that functioning deteriorates, so to will my consciousness. At the point at which my brain no longer functions, I assume my brain won’t either. When I die, I probably won’t move to a better neighborhood. However, it’s possible that my cryonically preserved brain can be reanimated, that future generations will possess the computing power to run ancestor simulations, or that some other future technology will defeat death. But as things stand now, there is no good reason to believe my consciousness can literally survive death. When I die I doubt that I’ll move to a better neighborhood.

Do We Survive Death? Discussed in One Page

The idea of an immortal soul – For Socrates, this meant something in you that is indestructible. For St. Paul the immortality of the soul meant your non-physical soul would be reunited with a new physical body at judgment day [The idea that you die and then go to a paradise or punishment is a Greek idea; it is not Christian orthodoxy.]

Problems – Doctrines of immortal souls are difficult to accept in the 21st century because: 1) the idea of a soul is useless in science; and 2) consciousness depends on brains. You could just have faith in an immortal soul, or try to find reasons to believe in immortality, or you just give up on the idea altogether. For evidence of immorality you might turn to:

  1. near-death experiences – PROBLEM – NDE, to the extent they occur, provide very little reason to believe in life after death and are easily explained scientifically.
  2. Reincarnation – PROBLEM – the evidence for R is weak or non-existent.
  3. Psychics who communicate with the dead. PROBLEM – anyone who claims to do this is a charlatan. The tricks by which supposed psychics fool people are well-known.

It would be miraculous if our consciousness could survive without our bodies. Perhaps we should just believe in miracles. But David Hume advanced a powerful argument that it is never rational to believe in miracles, it is one of the most famous in all of philosophy.  Hume asks, What is more likely?

  1. that someone in the past actually walked on water, rose from the dead, etc., or
  2. that those who tell such stories are exaggerating, lying, or have themselves been deceived.

Of course, #2 is more likely. Lying, exaggerating, or being credulous are common; walking on water or rising from the dead or not. Thus it is never rational to believe in miracles—defined as actions violating laws of nature—because #2 is always more likely than #1.

While immortality is possible, it is easy to see that it is highly unlikely.

Overpopulation and Technological Immortality

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 10, 2015.)

Many worry that radical life extension or the elimination of death will lead to overpopulation and ecological destruction. In other words, while it may be best for individuals to live forever, it might be collectively disastrous. Readers may recognize this situation as an instance of the “tragedy of the commons.” Acting in their apparent self-interest, individuals destroy a common good. It may be convenient for individuals to pollute the air, earth, and water, but eventually, this is catastrophic for all. However, I don’t believe that overpopulation and its attendant problems should give researchers in this area pause. Here are some reasons why.

Let’s begin with a few simple things. First of all, fertility rates are currently plummeting around the world. In addition, the carrying capacity of our planet in terms of population depends on our technology, which is constantly progressing. Technology itself may allow us to comfortably feed more people with less environmental impact in the near future. Next consider that if the choice is between using technology to prolong healthy lives or have more children, most of us would choose the latter. Wouldn’t you prefer to have fewer children than having your parents get Alzheimer’s?

But there’s more. If we have conquered death, then we may already be transhumans or post-humans living after a technological singularity. Such beings may not want to propagate, since achieving a kind of immortality is a major motivation for having children. Posthumans would be relatively independent of the physical environment too—their bodies may be impervious to environmental stressors, or they may not have bodies at all. In such cases, concerns about overpopulation would be irrelevant. I’m not saying that they will be irrelevant, but that the tragedy of 150,000 people dying every single day—100,000 of them from age-related causes—is a huge price to pay for speculative hypotheses about the future. We shouldn’t assume that our concerns as biological beings today will be relevant in the future.

Of course, I don’t know how the future will unfold. But preserving the minds that now exist may be a better survival strategy than educating new ones. In the future, we will probably need educated and mature minds—their invaluable knowledge and wisdom. So I argue that we should try to eliminate death, dealing with overpopulation—assuming we even have to—when the time comes. My suggestions may be considered reckless, but remember there is no risk-free way to proceed into the future. Whatever we do, or don’t do, has risks. If we cease developing technology we will not be able to prevent the inevitable asteroid strike that will decimate our planet; if we continue to die young we may not develop the intelligence necessary to design better technology. Given these considerations, we shouldn’t let hypotheticals about the future deter our research into defeating death.

Note too that this objection to life-extending research could have been leveled at work on the germ theory of disease, or other life-extending research and technology in the past. Don’t cure diseases because that will lead to overpopulation! Don’t treat sick children because they might survive and have more children! I think most of us are glad we have a germ theory of disease and treat sick children. Our responsibility is to help people live long, healthy lives, not worry that by doing so other negative consequence might ensue. We are glad that some of our ancestors decided that a twenty-five-year life span was insufficient, instead of worrying that curing diseases and extending life might have negative consequences.

Most importantly, I believe it is immoral for us to reject anti-aging research and the technologies it will produce, thereby forcing future generations to die involuntarily. After anti-aging technologies are developed, the living should be free to choose to live longer, live forever, or even die young if they want to. But it would be immoral for us not to try to make death optional for them. If we made decisions for them, we would be imposing our values on them. At the moment we tolerate a high death rate to compensate for a high birth rate, but our descendants may not share this value.

Moreover, as I have argued previously, death is like a bomb strapped to our chest. The bomb is with us from birth and can detonate at any time. If it is in our power to remove that bomb for future generations, then we should. We should not let hypothetical concerns about negative consequences deter our removing those explosives. I’d bet future generations will thank us for removing such bombs, and even if our descendants do decide that a hundred years of consciousness is enough, they will probably be thankful that we gave them the option to live longer. I’d guess that higher forms of being and consciousness will want to preserve their being. They would want us to disarm the bomb.

The lovers of death don’t want to disarm the bomb because its detonation transports you to a better address—from a slum to a mansion. Even better, in the mansion, your mind and body are eternally bathed in a salve of peace, love, and joy. That is the justification for opposing the bomb’s removal. The problem is this story is fictional. And we know that most people agree because when humans conquer death, when they learn to remove the bomb—they will. Those in the future who have the option to live forever will be eternally grateful that they have the real thing, instead of the empty promises we now pay for each Sunday in church. Consciousness has come a long way from its beginnings in a primordial soup, but there is so much farther to go. Let’s put our childhood behind us, and make something of ourselves.

Is Love Stronger Than Death?

Many people believe that 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 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 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 descendants 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.

Why Do People Fear Immortality?

The Fountain of Eternal Life in Cleveland, Ohio.

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, December 18, 2014.)

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think death should be optional. Yet I always encounter resistance when introducing this idea to others. Why is that? There are many reasons. For some, the idea that we should choose whether to live or die contradicts religious beliefs or seems impossible. For others, death is thought to be natural or what gives life meaning. And fiction influences others by often portraying immortality as bad because:

1) You will be bored.
2) You will be unable to die.
3) You will hurt others to attain it.
4) You will lose your humanity.
5) You will turn into a monster
6) You will destroy the environment.

My guess is that negative views of the future are more exciting, selling more books and movie tickets than descriptions of utopias. But think of it this way. About ten generations ago the average life expectancy in most of the world was about thirty years. If someone told you then that they could triple that lifespan, would you voice the above concerns? I doubt it. Some people will be bad or bored or destructive because they live longer, Some are like that now. But for others with age comes more kindness and wisdom. Yes, there are bored, horrific people in the world, but that is not connected with how long they live. Some people are just horrible.

Now suppose we tripled the lifespan again? Say an average healthy lifespan becomes 250 years. What would change? I can’t say for sure but I see no reason to think life would necessarily get worse. In fact, knowing our lives would be longer might force us to better cooperate with others and preserve the environment. If we are going to be alive when the ecosystem is ruined, we might be more likely to care for it.

Of course, if we had the option to live forever that would be different. That would create different questions some of which I’ve tried to answer previously. So let’s continue to increase our lifespans and see what happens.