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Why Can’t We Have a Rational Discussion About the Afterlife?

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: Spirituality, Afterlife, Philosophy, Theology, The Chronicle Review, Will Wlizlo Will Wlizlo,


Let’s put our ideological and spiritual differences aside for just a moment and, through reasoned argumentation, decide what happens to human beings after they die. Easier said than done. Should we approach the mystery from a high philosophical horse, or whittle it down with the empirical edge of the scientific method? And don’t forget: the cozy theologian will have something to add to the discussion as well. Even if we strip passion from our assumptions about the afterlife, we come no closer to understanding its feasibility.

After reading four recently published books regarding life after death, Jacques Berlinerblau is as clueless as he ever was. But what appears at first to be a run-of-the-mill book roundup in The Chronicle Review becomes a careful examination of the difficulties of talking about the afterlife in a useful, scholarly manner.

Berlinerblau first tackles books that try to prove the existence of an afterlife through modern science. One such book, Life After Death: the Evidence by Dinesh D'Souza, is a spirited read, Berlinerblau writes, but the alleged scientific accuracy of D’Souza’s claims is questionable, and far outside the realm of a lay-person’s ability to second-guess. “[D’Souza] devotes great energy and imagination to popularizing complex scientific ideas for his readers,” says Berlinerblau. “Whether his distillation of those ideas is accurate is something that only physicists, neuroscientists, astronomers, and biochemists, among others, can answer.” Looking to the humanities is just as unsatisfying.

Theological and philosophical writing is infamous for its convoluted complexity. Berlinerblau tried, with marginal success, to unpack the metaphysical arguments for an afterlife in Princeton professor Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death. Things don’t start well: “From the outset, let me confess that Professor Johnston's argument went so far above my head that it jettisoned booster rockets into the poppling ocean of my incomprehension.” After numerous dense, jargon-y chapters, Berlinerblau concludes that “It would be pointless to try to summarize [Johnston’s] hypotheses.”

Berlinerblau speculates that rational conversation about the afterlife may be impossible and offers his own modest solution: “There is, of course, a counterpossibility: If we do in fact perdure, perhaps we transit into a realm beyond good and evil—a realm so radically other that science, theology, and philosophy cannot fathom its contours. That does not mean we should stop asking questions. But insofar as there are no answers, a recommended course of action might consist of living according to some minimal standard of decency and cherishing our bright moments.”

Source: The Chronicle Review

Image by Qole Pejorian, licensed under Creative Commons.