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

| 8/12/2010 4:04:53 PM


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.”

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.)

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