Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves And Immortality.
-A poem by Emily Dickenson
Some say that it is our opposable thumbs that set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Others claim it is the brain or the soul. I think the thing that really sets us apart is the awareness of our own, inevitable death. But then, perhaps we aren’t as aware as we think we are. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the finality of death, cultures all over the world hold beliefs of people surviving death in various forms, whether through reincarnation, resurrection, netherworlds of reward and punishment, ghostly forms, cryogenics, or even the more down to earth ideas of living on in the memories of loved ones or the genetic code of biological descendants. In this essay, I intend to examine some possible reasons for these beliefs and to consider whether there is any validity to the claim that we can outlive our own mortal bodies.
What makes human belief such an interesting topic is that the reasons we believe what we believe are rarely what we would expect. Recent studies have shown that emotional decision making usually precedes rational justification of those decisions (Seybold 78). So even when we think we have a rational justification for what we believe, it is necessary to examine our own emotional response to the question to correct for our own personal bias. With that in mind, any thorough investigation into life after death must begin with a review of the baggage which all humans bring to the table: imaginative obstacles, fear of non-existence, the desire for purpose, and wish fulfilment.
Children automatically assume that psychological states continue after death. Studies have shown that this is a natural state rather than a learned behaviour by observing a reduction in the belief in older children (Nichols 215). This appears to be the result of an imaginative barrier. When trying to imagine the experiences of another, we draw on our memory to create simulations of ourselves in their situation, but we encounter an obstacle when imagining a first person perspective of death (Nichols 216). Without personal conscious experience of death, we can only project our own consciousness into a dead body. We cannot actually imagine ourselves from a first person perspective in a state of non-existence (Nichols 215). Even in imagining our own death, we survive as spectators (Menz 318) we cannot simulate the absence of mental states so we attribute psychological continuity to dead subjects (Nichols 217). Imagining personal non-existence requires imagining personal awareness of personal non-existence. This is an impossible task, as awareness requires personal existence (Nichols 220). We can, however, have second person experience of somebody else dying and are therefore able to indirectly conceive of the possibility of our own death through second and third person perspectives through simulation (Nichols 226). If we cannot easily imagine a present where we do not exist, and we see evidence of physical death in the world daily and have no reason to expect that we will somehow escape this fate, it creates a state of disequilibrium. The most direct resolution of this problem is to invent a concept of spiritual afterlife (Nichols 230). This certainly doesn’t count as proof of an afterlife, but it does appear to be a major factor influencing human belief in an afterlife.
The next psychological barrier is wish fulfilment. The deepest human desire is to be free of death (Ahrensdorf). Freud and Feuerbach both believed that belief in an afterlife, like other religious institutions, fulfils human desire too conveniently to be believable (Jonte-Pace 81) and is in fact a manifestation of childhood anxieties (Kunkel 58). Hobbes claimed “Human contentment requires us to suppress our awareness of the truth that we are mortal” (Hobbes). Augustine said “Life will only be happy when it is eternal” (Augustine). Every animal has a drive to avoid death. Humans avoid death by denying it, to prevent despair (Menz 318). We naturally try to push away even the idea of it on a conscious and unconscious level. Nurses respond to less ill patients faster than they do to patients who are near death (LeShan). The funeral industry is built on the denial of the reality of death, coating corpses in cosmetics and laying them in velvet lined coffins with inner spring mattresses to create an illusion of life (Menz 319).
The horror that many feel in the face of personal extinction may be an extension of the basic animal will to live inherent in the survival instinct, coupled with the advanced emotional outcome prediction abilities of the human brain (Moxon 315; Menz 79). A belief in the afterlife may well be a simple case of desiring something so badly that we simply convince ourselves that it is true (Stewart 20). The brain may’ve evolved these characteristics to make awareness of our own death more bearable (Seybold 85).
Wish fulfilment isn’t necessarily tied exclusively to survival instinct. Belief in an afterlife can also be inspired by the need for a conservation of values (Moxon 309). The part of the brain that simulates emotional outcomes of actions in humans produces an internal sense of punishment and reward based justice (Seybold 79). The desire for compensation and reward in life is universal to the human condition (Kunkel 59). Since emotion generally makes our decisions for us (Seybold), it is understandable that if the rewards in this life for what a person considers good behaviour and the punishments for what a person sees as bad behaviour do not appear to be sufficient for the actions, they will rationalise a belief that would have the rewards and consequences of people’s lives balanced in some way that can reach them after death (Seybold 79; Moxon 309; Stewart 20; Kunkel 60). Personal immortality implies that human values are good, and are preserved after death (Moxon 309).
All of this provides some very convincing reasons for why people believe in an afterlife, but it doesn’t really address the question of whether or not they are right. The fact that every person is predisposed to believe in an afterlife and has to work very hard to imagine a world without one does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. The universe may be indifferent, but it isn’t cruel. Let’s have a look at some of the beliefs and see if they are possible, plausible or likely.
There are numerous life after death theories. Pantheism holds that the death of an individual life in the universe is like the death of a cell in the body. The body is still alive so there hasn’t really been any death. Other theories include a kind of reintegration of the spirit back into the divine with the individual self merges into and is lost within the divine self, or that we live on in the memories of those we leave behind or in the perfect memory of God (Schmidt 238). For the purpose of this discussion, I am going to focus on the kind of afterlife where something that can be identified as an individual self is able to go on living after the physical body has ceased of function, as this is what the majority of people mean when they talk about an afterlife.
To know if the self can survive physical death, the first point that must be defined is what exactly the self is. The self is not the physical material which makes up the body. The cells that make of a life form are being constantly renewed through a process of homeostasis, and the cells which make up a person today are completely different to the cells which made up that person seven to eight years ago (Moulton 50). So assuming that an individual has the same self as they did a decade earlier, their identity is not in physical matter.
The second option is that the self is a non-physical entity that exists in a dualistic relationship with the physical body and continues to live on after the physical body has expired. At first glance this appears to solve the problem of physical death and fits well with the intuitive expectations mentioned in the first half of this essay; unfortunately it quickly runs into problems. Afterlife requires the continuation of consciousness and personality; otherwise it would not be considered the same person (Foster 123; Moxom 492; Moulton 53). There is a theory that the brain is a receptor through which the conscience of the soul flows but which is not itself the source of consciousness (Foster 130). This argument is not convincing in the light of modern research into the effects of brain damage on personality and consciousness. The brain does not merely conduct thoughts, it generates them (Moulton 46). Since damage to the brain has been shown to cause alterations to personality, it can be reasonably assumed that the personality also exists within the brain and cannot exist independently of it (Seybold 79). Memory is also dependant on the brain (Foster 132). If the life after death lacks consciousness, personality, memory and the matter which made up the person, then there is no way to claim that the being that continues to exist is the original person at all.
A third option is that the self is not a physical or spiritual object at all, but is rather the pattern that forms within matter and is maintained and developed by a process of homeostasis throughout the individual’s physical life (Moulton 50). It is this pattern which contains the personality, the consciousness and even the memories and emotions of an individual. If the pattern can be preserved at the point of death and then recreated in another body, then the new body could justifiably be called the same person even if it contained none of the physical matter which made up the person in their previous life (Moulton 49). This option has one possible flaw in that it would allow for the possibility of multiple recreations of the same pattern being made in different bodies at the same time. This could be addressed by some kind of arbitrary metaphysical soul marker or atom which functions as a non-divisible authenticity certificate which would only have to make up a single part of the overall pattern to make it impossible to perfectly duplicate more than one copy of the individual at any given moment. The other option would be to say that in such a circumstance, at the moment of creation the copies would begin to have different experiences and become separate individuals. They would both be the person they were in their previous life, but they would also be themselves. I personally find the second option to be neater but they both fit the requirements for a life after death to be a logical possibility.
Moulton claims that whether man is immortal depends on the intentions and essence of God (53). I disagree. Recreating the pattern of an entire human being would require technology that is not currently within the grasp of humanity, but could be easily within the reach of a finite being with sufficient technology (Vernor). Absolute immortality may still be a long way off, but a technologically assisted afterlife for individual humans may be as little as fifteen years away. Possibly even less (Vernor).
While the reasons for the widespread and almost universal human belief in an afterlife may be illogical conclusions based on emotions and wishful thinking, the conclusion may actually be correct. An afterlife is indeed possible, though for those of us alive now, whether we will ever experience such a thing will be entirely dependent on the nature of the beings, be it God, sentient computers, future humans or aliens, who control the technology. Until we experience it for ourselves, we will never know for sure.
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