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Friday, December 12, 2008

Is There Life After Death?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: When my second son was five years old, we held a garage sale. In a halting, squeaky voice, Adam begged me not to sell his beloved tricycle.
“But you’ve grown too big for it,” I said, appealing to logic.
“But I’ll grow up, get old, and die,” he responded cheerily, “and when I’m little again, I’ll have my bike.”
My worldly wisdom collapsed. How did he know about death? We hadn’t discussed death in his presence; no relative had died. Perhaps television, friends? Somehow, death had entered his world. But why was he so sure he’d be back? That was more puzzling. I could detect no antecedent. Perhaps the permanent cessation of life seemed so inconceivable, so discordant with childhood sentience, that coming back just seemed self-evident.
I’d like to live forever ... wouldn’t everyone? I really mean it. Could we survive bodily death? Could our personal awareness transcend physical decay?
It seems absurd. It seems obvious.
Whether there is, or is not, life after death is the most singularly personal question we can ask, and the only two possible answers are in radical conflict. Everything we know about third-person science argues that life after death is impossible, absurd. Should we not follow the evidence of our senses? Yet, everything we feel about first-person consciousness argues that life after death is self-evident, obvious. Should a being who perceives eternity and desires it deeply be denied it?
No mere intellectual inquiry, this. The answer affects us. All of us. Forever. (Although what we conclude, either way, has no relationship to what is real.)
I fear "no life after death," but there is one thing I fear even more: fooling myself into believing that there is life after death when there is not. I struggle to differentiate what I know from what I believe and both from what I hope. Hope can fog belief, and both can distort knowledge.
I step back. How can the question of life after death be assessed?
I start with two general ways of thinking: evidentialism and fideism, the former requiring sensory inputs or logical analysis (consistent with the scientific method), the latter relying on a belief system or (apparent) revelation.
As for the evidentiary approach to life after death, everything we know about the physical brain indicates that when it dies, the person dies. Scientifically, there is absolutely nothing in all of brain research to suggest otherwise.
However, there are two areas of inquiry that could be considered evidentiary or amenable to scientific study that some claim do provide support, if not absolute proof, of life after death: the putative communication with the dead through mediums, séances, and the like, and the ostensible visions of “near death experiences” (NDEs). Each area has given rise to vast literature, libraries actually, that I cannot here summarize. But I can offer personal opinion.
On communications with the dead, I should find it odd in the extreme if (i) human beings really do survive death, and (ii) if the deceased really can and do interact with the living, why their apparent communications should be, at best, well, so fringy. How could such a monumental part of reality—the immortal nature of human consciousness—express itself so infrequently, so inconsequentially, and through such flaky intermediaries? Why, too, after so many serious researchers have pursued survival for so long, is its legitimacy so poorly accepted? Oh, I’ve certainly heard reasons or rationalizations why this might be so, but they all strain credulity.
As for NDEs, I’ve never given the claims credence. They seem little more than stress-induced brain physiology caused by lack of oxygen—or other such chemical insults or trauma brought about as a corollary or epiphenomenon of whatever was causing the near death in the first place. I do not consider NDEs as differing in principle from “seeing stars” if hit over the head or visualizing colors when poked or pushed in the eye.
Arguments for imbuing NDEs with larger meaning call attention to the similar visions among diverse cultures (i.e., seeing lights, tunnels, meeting angelic-like beings) and the idea that through these visions people learn special things that would be difficult to explain by conventional means. As for the similar visions, well, all humans in all cultures have similar brains, and they are affected in similar ways by trauma. Furthermore, it is not clear that the cross-cultural visions are similar: Non-Christians, to my knowledge, do not readily see figures reminiscent of Jesus or Mary. As for knowledge of special things, I’ve never seen any evidence. There is another counterargument against the evidentiary claim of life after death made by those people who supposedly communicate with the dead, generally through mediums of one kind of another, and who learn information that apparently could not be known without the “dead-person transmission.” Follow this: Even if careful investigation would prove the veracity of the information and even if the information could not have been known through common or subtle sensory mechanisms—admissions I am not prepared to make—such information would still not prove survival beyond death.
Such “impossible-to-know information,” as philosopher Stephen Braude has shown, could have been apprehended through various “super-psi” mechanisms—higher-levels or complex combinations of extrasensory perception (ESP) that can masquerade as coming from dead people. In other words, paranormal knowledge gleaned through telepathy (mind-to-mind transfer), clairvoyance (perceptions beyond the ordinary senses), or precognition (knowing the future) can manifest itself as if coming from deceased beings, and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish among the various possible originating sources. [Note: One does not have to believe in the reality of ESP to appreciate that its possibility alone presents a major stumbling block to those who seek to corroborate life after death by the special information supposedly imparted by communications from the dead.]
For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the most powerful proof for life after death. Many believers claim that, in addition to confirmation by faith, Jesus’ resurrection is confirmable by history, by the kinds of evidence that would pass the test of historical scholarship. Obviously, this claim is not universally acceptable nor is its historicity the unanimous declaration of Christian scholars.
As for the fideistic approach to life after death, it is certainly true that virtually all cultures and religions have a strong and enduring tradition of survival beyond death. Although such traditions, whether based on written scriptures or oral transmissions, can be dismissed as pre-scientific and superstitious, something like ancient animism, the ubiquity of such beliefs horizontally across disparate human societies and vertically through diverse human histories does call for, in my opinion, some consideration.
But congruence among religions—say, among the Abrahamic religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)—offers scant support for the veracity of an afterlife. The reason is that doctrinal beliefs are often derived from similar scriptures and interconnected philosophers.
So how to discern and dissect out what, if anything, is real? How to categorize the fideism approach? I suggest two broad categories: the existence of a traditional-like God and the primacy of consciousness.
The first category posits a Creator God and probably requires such a God to be personal, which is to say one who can and does take interest in individual human beings. The monotheistic God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the prime example. If one believes in this kind of Personal Creator God, it seems a small step for such a God, assuming such a God created the entire universe and all that is, to assure life after death for any or all of the beings that God created. The mechanism that God might use to bring about life after death can vary: Creating an immortal soul is one way; resurrecting the dead is another. (Note that a God-induced resurrection works even with a purely physicalist understanding of personhood, without any immortal soul). If I believed that a Personal God created the universe, I’d find little problem in accepting that such a God could assure continuance of conscious life after bodily death.
The second approach to life after death is founded on the primacy of consciousness. This can be expressed in multiple formats and styles: the mainstreams of Eastern religions (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, etc.); philosophical belief in the immortality of the soul (e.g., Plato and others); or a conviction that consciousness is fundamental in the structure of reality (e.g., panpsychism) and perhaps is more fundamental than even the physical world (e.g., idealism). Each of these belief systems can exist independent of the kind of Creator God as is commonly assumed in the Abrahamic religions.
Specific descriptions of the alleged afterlife, as one might expect, reflect individual cultures. But life after death, even if real, cannot be settled by culture. Because, as philosopher Daniel Dennett’s work shows, even in the absence of God, there would still be very good reasons why humans believe in god.
So here’s the question: Given the complete and utter absence of credible evidence for life after death, why would I give any credence at all to the claims of religion or consciousness? It cannot be based on science because, ipso facto, science shows the opposite, that there is no possibility of life after death. So such a belief would have to be, yes, in spite of science.
This possibility I do not exclude because, by definition, the essence or nature of religion and consciousness is nonphysical; therefore, by definition, religion and consciousness are not in thrall to the evidentiary imperative, the scientific standard of truth. If this sounds like rationalization, it is because it is rationalization. The question is whether it may also be something more.
How do I conclude? As a scientist, any afterlife seems impossible, ludicrous. As a person, no afterlife seems inconceivable, absurd. I summarize four options.
First, I will have no life after death. I have no soul. When I become dead, I stay dead.
Second, I have a soul, and my soul is immortal. My post-death journey features heaven or hell or some state in between.
Third, I have no soul. When I die, I’m dead, out of existence. But God, at some future moment, “in the twinkling of an eye” (as the New Testament’s 1 Corinthians states), will resurrect my body and bring back my person.
Fourth, my soul, not God, is preeminent. My soul is nonphysical and immortal and perhaps journeys through cycles of reincarnation.
Four options. Only one can be true.
As for so-called evidence of an afterlife, I cannot imagine why, if we do survive death, the evidence is so weak.
As I see it, for any hope of an afterlife, the only argument that can work, if any can work at all, is that God exists and God is personal. So only if I would believe that there really is a God, a God who has concern for me (and everyone), would I hold out hope for an afterlife.
Even then, in my opinion, not an afterlife by means of an immortal soul. And not right after death. But only by some kind of, well, reconstitution of mind and body. At some unknown time. In some mysterious way. And for a purpose beyond anything we can ever know.
I think that’s correct, and closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Stephen Braude, Michael Tooley, J.P. Moreland, Nancey Murphy, Mahmoud Ayoub, David Shatz, and Master Hsing Yun in "Is There Life After Death?" the 14th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, which airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants in the series will share their views on the previous day's episode.


Dan Knudsen said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, which showed a lot of good thought and logic involved in its genesis.

I believe a version of your second option. (“Second, I have a soul, and my soul is immortal. My post-death journey features heaven or hell or some state in between.”) I replace the word “soul” with the word “spirit”--I define soul as the combination of body and spirit, with the spirit being the element that gives life to the body (when the spirit leaves the body, the body is dead and begins to decay.)

As for why afterlife “evidence is so weak,” the hint for me is in Chapter 10 of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History Of Time” where he theorizes that if there is a God who created all things, he did it so that it looks like he doesn’t exist. Therefore, since we can’t know scientifically that God exists, it has to be taken on faith that he exists, and then we try to live according to what his prophets have said over the centuries. The end result is “for a purpose beyond anything we can ever know” in this life. This makes more sense to me and “I think that’s correct, and closer to truth.”

Proof of life after death said...

I think that research of Near Death Experiences leave us the closest we can get to a proof. People like Pam Reynolds have reported NDEs during clinical death which is a challange to science: how can people report clear consciousness with flat EEG (no brain activity)

The answer still lies out there, but with the search for the God-particle at CERN maybe soon we will have real proof of extra dimensions where God could be placed.