Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

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.

nanda sanders
12/7/2010 10:09:57 PM

To answer all your about is there life after death,buy the book by A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Beyond Birth and Death for about $3.00 at www.krishna.com

nanda sanders
12/7/2010 9:59:36 PM

There is life after death.Has any out there ever been to funeral? Why is it that person who has died can't sit up and talk to you.Because the soul (the consciousness is the proof of the soul)has left the body.The same thing applies when see the dead body of insect or an animal.The humans can't eat their chicken,fish,steak,bacon or turkey. Unless the animals are slaughtered and the soul leaves the body.If the soul or consciousness is still present in the body,those animals mentioned above are not going stand still and let the humans eat them. No one cares for or love a dead body. The is buried and becomes food for the worms or it is burned.If you want more information on this very serious matter. By the book by A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada for about $3.00 at www.krishna.com There is no denying it when we die we are going some where. Nanda Sanders

9/18/2010 10:44:23 AM

Another general remark, prompted in this case by Shirley's, but also many, many others of the like i have seen online.... You state that religion is "ignorance and fear" as though that were true. And established as true. It is neither. Or, more correctly, not in many, many cases. Perhaps most -- that I could not say, as I do not know the 85% of humanity who believe, still less why. I do know too many who are not the slightest ignorant nor much given to fearfulness or threats as a reason to credit something. (I am a science journalist of some repute, and know personally mostly scientists and other science journalists of similar reputation. We are not an ignorant bunch, as people go -- if any started that way, the passionate truthseeking common to scientists and to good journalists saw an end to it early. I also go way out of my way to avoid people who are mired in ignorance and fear.)

9/11/2010 11:13:01 AM

To Shirley et al., You, like many, make a fundamental though understandable error in radically overvaluing rationality. You associate yourself with the part of you that thinks; natural enough; this however does not mean that that is either the most important part of you; indeed, it is bypassed whenever business of any importance is at hand. Reason, to the extent we are capable of it, is a sparkling new human attribute -- useful in some ways but hardly necessary and outright obstructive in many other ways. Very illustrative are the cases in which people have been brain-damaged in such a way that they can continue to think rationally, but not emotionally/instinctively -- they are rendered unable to function. Not so if the opposite occurs. Almost all our decisions are made emotionally and experentially (memory keeps what makes an emotional impact, jettisons the rest); it is far quicker and more efficient and a better guide to living than trying to loop everything through the forebrain, which would result in paralysis, were the human organism so ill-evolved to do so. It is not. (See the excellent PBS series "The Secret Life of the Brain" -- the web component, to which I contributed, is still online. I am a science journalist and fully appreciate the fruits of reason, but to mistake them for the experience of being human is simply a mistake; to give them pride of place, a worse one.

8/24/2010 4:25:01 PM

You can only think of death and the afterlife in logical or theological means until someone in your immediate family passes. Logic, Theology, whatever you thought was your faith does not touch the grief process. The grief process is the breakdown of everything you thought you knew and believed. Perhaps we all go a little mad but I have never met someone that has lost child, parent, spouse, sister, or brother that will deny that there is something that carries on and that something can communicate with the living. The science here is limited to my own experience and observation but I see it as completely rational to believe there is an afterlife that is mostly beyond the ablility of the living mind to comprehend. It is a near universal experience to be visited by loved ones that are dead, regardless of what you "believe" to be possible. Either all of our psychology plays the same trick to ensure our continued ablitily to function or it is truth. Truth is not always rational.

8/23/2010 9:09:51 AM

Inconcievable!!!!! I dont think you get out much Shirley. Okay you have used an intriguing circular logic here.Show me one imperical fact that God does not exist. I am quite certain my arguement will beat yours, although your hero Hitchens agrees this entire arguement is an exercise in futility. I will try none the less. How about the fact the world exist as evidence of a God? Or do we exist? Could we just assume that the world is infact real or does this not meet your standard? I think the world exist. I think it is indisputable it was created long jump to creator. I also believe we all have a moral law, one that supercedes our instinct for survival and one that is different from our herd nature. There is something inside of us that knows the difference between right and wrong even if we choose wrong. Okay let me try a different route one that would be of a more statiscal nature but "scientist" such as your self just dismiss. The complexities of our biology, the complex systems that allow us to survive every day. The fact that my eyes work with my ears and can tell my joints how to manuever. How about how complex a knee is? How about not only that the universe exist but that order exist with in it. Certainly nature would prefer Chaos. The odds of a climate existing in the universe that could sustain this type of life? Books have been written about all of these subjects by scientist but I am sure they would all fall far short of ration. Shirely my friend you are a peach

shirley hodge
8/21/2010 10:55:35 AM

Rodeen, my concept of rational is: thought processes forming conclusions based on empirically proveable facts. Empirecally proven facts being those facts that are repeatable over and over. Name me one so-called "fact" in any of the world's religious myths and superstitions that can meet that standard. In fact name me one that is anything more than the product of ignorance and fear which with every passing generation becomes more and more embroidered and convoluted to fit preconceived ideas.

8/18/2010 8:33:11 AM

Shirley, I don't think rational means what you think it means.

r cree
8/18/2010 1:07:24 AM

To add to my previous post, I find science fiction is helpful in breaking free of the cultural perspectives and infomation limits currently existing regarding afterlife. If you really want a very detailed and scientific perspective on physics of afterlife and consciousness that suggests a physics to the structure of spirit and you, you might want to go to AzuritePress.com and read some of the perspectives on our relationship to God/Source and the Kosmic structure of you and our vast interconnection to everything in this Universe and the millions, maybe billions of other Universes. Given all the limited perspectives and my limits in understanding science and theology, I find it very helpful to have a very farout science fiction structural perspective on my consciousness and afterlife and its connection to some larger Kosmic structure to provide a basis for discussions. Whatever the thoughts and ideas on the far out science fiction perspective might be, we can have this rational discussion because we would not be threatening anyone's current sacred or strongly held beliefs.

r cree
8/18/2010 12:48:33 AM

Since the Catholic church during the Renaissane made a deal with science---science stay out of theology and the church will quit torturing and burning scientists --there hasn't been much discussion between science and theology. No wonder we can not talk about afterlife in any rational way because science and theology have been separated for so long that neither side has a common language to communicate. It is sad when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 325 AD at the Council of Nicea that the truth of each of us, of everything in this Universe was an outpicturing manifestation of God/Source. Just as we know that everything is made of subatomic particles linked to a vast Universe of consciousness of God/Source that orders everything, so did early Christians and religious beings before them know this connection to everything. Yes, God/Source knows when the sparrow falls from the sky because everything is connected subatomically to God/Source. Our bodies are not necessarily eternal, but our consciousness is because it is the consciousness of God/Source.

john marsh
8/17/2010 9:36:24 PM

An old story: Each of us dies two deaths. The first when our body stops breathing. The second when the last person who remembers us stops breathing.

nanner bobanner_2
8/17/2010 5:43:37 PM

Most of the comments refer to belief, faith or something that is a prerequisite in the afterlife scenario. These all share a similar aspect that boils down to what separates the 1% from the rest - that is human will - which creates our consensus reality (see particle/wave theories). So the real issue is what happens to our will after death. If we can no longer buy into a consensus reality does that mean there is no more reality, or, does it mean we are faced with random realities that we cannot control(ie hell)? In other words, hell is when someone else decides your reality. If that is hell, then heaven is when you are deciding your own reality. That is why there is an interest in lucid dreaming and astral projection, both of which are analogous to life after death. I realize this doesn't "prove" anything, but at least, you can start now and practice - just in case.

shirley hodge
8/17/2010 2:33:25 PM

The most powerful component of human intelligence is our capacity for logical, rational thinking but in order to convince ourselves to believe in the mythological superstitions that constitute religion, both organized and personal we must effectively suspend the aforementioned capacity for logical, rational thinking thus it is difficult to figure out how we could have a "reasoned" discussion of the religious concept of life after death with its heaven and hell concepts. Either you keep the logical, rational component of your intellect functioning or you suspend it and believe in super beings in heavens and hells or you do not. There is no gray area. To my mind the concept of life after death or the revival of our invisible "soul" for all eternity is the feel good (serotonin hyped) concept for those persons who cannot accept the passing of loved ones or the end of self.

gerald lagadec_2
8/17/2010 1:44:00 PM

Two people are at a party: one is dancing wildly with great abandon and obvious joy. The other sits in a corner, alone, full of melancholy,listless and obviously lost in some deep contemplation; every so often he stares at the dancer and shakes his head. Between the music, the 'dancer' notices the 'thinker' and approaches him. "What's wrong?" he asks the 'thinker'. You don't seem to be enjoying yourself". The 'thinker' looks up at him and says: " How can you enjoy all this? Don't you realize that this party will be over soon? No party lasts forever. No more music, no more dancing. What's the point when it doesn''t go on?" The 'dancer' laughs, "the point of dancing...well is dancing! You either get it or you don't." In the end, all this hot air on "the after-life" is just wasted breath better put to dancing by those who can't enjoy something because it doesn't last forever. We are all on the Titanic, not on the cruise ship that this culture attempts to hypnotize us into thinking. Learn to re-arrange the deck chairs in interesting ways and meet interesting people. I'm going to go play my guitar.

lauri lumby
8/17/2010 10:55:16 AM

Since we have no hard evidence of proof of an afterlife, the belief thereof is quite simply a matter of faith. Compassion calls us to accept eachother where we are at in our unique and very personal beliefs. Through compassion all arguments cease. Lauri Lumby Authentic Freedom Ministries http://www.authenticfreedom.net

8/17/2010 9:35:50 AM

How's this for logic. 1) By all appearences, we seem to be a manifestation of life on Earth. Furthermore, we appear to be part of a great chain of life (evolution) that generally links us to all living things. 2) We generally assume that birds, bees, bears and beetles don't "go to heaven" when they die; to wit, we do not ascribe an afterlife to them. Furthermore, we do not ascribe an afterlife to anything other than ourselves (and our cherished pets for some reason). 3) If we are part of life on Earth and our common senses lead us to believe that 99% of life on Earth does not "go to heaven", then isn't logical to assume that we, the last 1% share the same experience as all other life: we merely cease to exist.

8/13/2010 10:51:37 PM

I appreciate the concern which is been rose. The things need to be sorted out because it is not about the individual but it can be with everyone. -susan cripllar --------------------------- http://smiletravelinsurance.com