Inductive reasoning about the afterlife
Copyright Jack Call 2013
It was the morning of the world, so everything was fresh and new, looked wet, with strange proportions like a newborn, flowing, springing back to new life. It was the morning of the world, by the ocean, where sunlight reflected on the water was a wide field encrusted with diamonds, and I stared and it polished my eyes. It was the morning of the world, a new beginning. Flowers bloomed and flowers faded, and the blooming was new and the fading was new. Opinions were interesting, and fun to think through. The true meanings of words were easy to decipher, though it was all as intricate as you please.
In the morning of the world, even so-called “inanimate objects” were squirming, flowing, like visual music. I stared into a bush, and it was all lit up inside and cheery, like Santa’s workshop. In my treasury are stored up moments. It was the morning of the world, and even an asphalt-paved playground, with its patched, shiny black seams, was oozing intense, dynamic beauty. Light, light, everywhere.
Years have gone by and turned into decades, and every moment brings something new. I am considering again the conceptual coherence of immortality as compared to eternal death — not the immortality of posthumous fame, although I am as vain as anyone, nor the immortality of being absorbed into a greater whole, but the kind of personal, subjective immortality of either continuing to be conscious the way I am conscious now or recovering it whenever I have lost it.
In God is a Symbol of Something True I wrote that I didn’t believe literally in personal immortality, although I argued that there is a kind of objective immortality of each of our lives in that death can never take away what has already happened. I also declined to identify myself as a Christian, even though I acknowledged my Christian background and expressed the hope that the view I was trying to articulate in that book was consistent with true Christianity. In this book I try to explain why I now believe in subjective as well as objective immortality. Because of this new belief, I’m no longer reluctant to say that my religion is Christianity, for I think of the promise of everlasting life as the hallmark of Christianity.
Does the idea of life after death even make sense? One might expect that those who agree on the answer to this very basic religious/philosophic question would share, by and large, basic world views. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Among those who would answer No are those who profess not to be bothered by that answer, such as the Epicureans, Hume, and many a modern-day proponent of a naturalistic world view. But there are others who would answer No who see it as an answer that human nature cannot tolerate. Among this second group are those who see this as a cause for despair, like Senancour’s Obermann; or for anguish transcended by faith, like Luther, Kierkegaard and Unamuno; or for anguish or nausea transcended by an authentic life of self-assertion in the face of the absurd, like Sartre and Camus.
Similarly, among those who answer Yes, because they believe that it is not difficult to understand how there can be an afterlife and that there is one, there is a divide between those who see this as unquestionably desirable and those who see it as something to worry about or to be overcome. This is important to note because it is often assumed by both nonbelievers and believers of the first type that everyone agrees that surviving death would be desirable. The nonbelievers often use this assumption in a criticism of believers for indulging in wishful thinking, and pride themselves in contrast on being hard-headed realists brave enough to face the truth. For their part, the believers often use the same assumption that everyone would prefer that there be life after death as a reason either to pity the nonbelievers or to be annoyed with them for being unwilling to accept the good that is offered to them. To see that the assumption is false it is only necessary to consider the threat of eternal punishment for sinners in Christianity and Islam, and the goal of escaping the cycle of birth-death-rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism. To some of those brought up in a culture influenced by any of these traditions, achieving a state of nonbelief in an afterlife might be an easier path to the wish fulfillment of escaping the risk of eternal punishment or the cycle of births and deaths than becoming convinced that one is saved or will return to Brahman or attain Nirvana any time soon. Then, too, as H. H. Price has speculated, there may be many who simply find the thought of death as eternal rest more attractive than the thought of going on and on endlessly.
When we ask if a certain concept or claim makes sense, I think we are asking not only whether it is free of obvious or hidden self-contradiction but also whether it is consistent with other things we think we know to be true.
There is no internal contradiction in supposing that a person can be definitely dead at one time and then at a later time alive again. Those who say that it is contrary to reason to believe in an afterlife in that sense would presumably mean that it is contrary to reasonable expectations based on experience. On the other hand, there is something at the very least paradoxical about the notion of someone being both clearly and unmistakably dead and at the same time alive. The paradox can be resolved either by making a distinction between the person and his or her body or by making one between this world and another one where the person perhaps still has a body of some sort but just not the one that has been buried or cremated here on earth. Then the next question would be whether either of these distinctions is consistent with other things we think we know.
The Hindu sages, Plato, and many people who are neither founders of religion nor famous philosophers believe that a person can shed a body and take on a new one or else exist naked without one as easily as he or she can shed clothing. How many times have I heard or read a student in an introductory philosophy class say or write, “The body is just a shell,” and think to myself and sometimes say, “That isn’t a very reassuring comparison, since animals that have shells, like mollusks and turtles, die without them, or else, like hermit crabs, only abandon one when they are very sure the new one is better!” The comparison of the body with a suit of clothes is less alarming, but I can’t help thinking that it is a bit far-fetched to compare putting off or putting on a body — something very few people claim to remember ever having done themselves or ever having observed anyone else doing, and something that would generally happen at most twice in a lifetime, at the beginning and at the end — to taking off and putting on clothes, something that we all experience on a daily basis. I don’t claim to know that this comparison is inconsistent with what we know. It’s just that I don’t understand the source of the confidence that this is a clear statement of how things stand regarding life and death — unless, that is, I understand it in terms of a different sort of analogy which gives me more of an imaginative grip on what the experience is supposed to be like. I have in mind the time-honored and yet also perennially neglected analogies between life and dream, death and sleep.
Towards the end of David Hume’s posthumously published essay, Of the Immortality of the Soul, he asks the following rhetorical question: “By what arguments or analogies can we prove any state of existence, which no one ever saw, and which no way resembles any that ever was seen?” The answer that he expects, and the answer that I too would give is: by none at all. Where Hume takes this to support his conclusion that only Divine revelation could give us any evidence for an afterlife, I take it rather to support the conclusion that we have no reason to believe that death is permanent unconsciousness, since that is a state of existence “which no one ever saw, and which no way resembles any that ever was seen.”
I don’t deny that we can observe things, such as grains of sand, and stars, that in all likelihood never have been and never will be conscious, although it is possible that parts of these things will be incorporated at some time in the future into beings that are conscious. Nor do I deny that we can observe things like dead animal and human bodies which once were conscious but no longer are. I am thinking about what it is to be conscious or unconscious oneself, not what it is for something else to be conscious or unconscious.
I am conscious and you are conscious, but I have been unconscious relative to how conscious I am now, and I have been more conscious relative to how conscious I am now. Whether or not I have ever been totally without consciousness is not clear to me. What is clear is that I have never been permanently unconscious, since I am conscious now. When Hume writes about the immortality of the soul, I take it that the kind of state of existence he is writing about is the kind that a person might either hope or dread to be in. I note that in that essay he doesn’t stand by his famous provocative dictum that “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions,” for this is what he says about the doctrine of the immortality of the soul:
“Death is in the end unavoidable; yet, the human species could not be preserved, had not nature inspired us with an aversion towards it. All doctrines are to be suspected which are favored by our passions. And hopes and fears which give rise to this doctrine, are very obvious.”
Hume’s argument is that since the only state of existence we have ever known is one of being a living, breathing human organism, we have no way of arguing by way of analogy that after death we are likely to enter into some other, radically different state of existence, such as that of an immortal, disembodied soul, not dependent on air, water, and food. I don’t disagree with that, but I do disagree with his (insincere) conclusion, that only Divine revelation could allow us to “ascertain this great and important truth” that we are immortal. What is insincere is not his rejection of an argument for immortality based on natural reasoning but his belief that our immortality is nevertheless a great and important truth that we know through Divine revelation.
Sir Thomas Browne and Joseph Butler both argue by analogy with the metamorphoses of such creatures as silkworms and butterflies that it is understandable how we could be resurrected and utterly transformed as predicted in the Bible. The analogy helps in understanding how such a transformation could preserve biological continuity under radical change, but it doesn’t serve as evidence for the prediction, which still depends on revelation. The only kind of experience that can count as evidence for the veridicality of a revelation reported by someone else is either an experience of what is predicted by the revelation, which in the case of Judgment Day hasn’t happened yet, or the experience of a similar revelation to oneself. On a psychedelic trip I have experienced a superconscious peak experience so intense that I have no qualms about thinking of it as having died and having been almost instantaneously reborn, and, in a clear sense, states of consciousness induced by 250-500 micrograms of LSD are radically different from non-psychedelic experiences; so I am convinced that such a thing actually happens. As for the parts of Biblical revelation concerning eternal rewards and punishments, these would correspond to good and bad acid trips, making it clear that eternity only seems to last forever.
Of course, my reports will count as evidence for you no more than (and likely less than) the reports of St. John the Divine or other non-psychedelic mystics, since psychedelics are illegal and supposedly passé, unless you are a psychedelic mystic yourself, in which case you have your own direct evidence. However, here I am arguing for the probability of immortality not through any appeal to revelation, psychedelic or otherwise, but only by appealing to inductive reasoning concerning what everyone has and has not experienced.
Hume’s premises support a far different conclusion from the one he thinks they do. Since the only state of existence we have ever known has been that of being living, breathing human organisms and since we have no knowledge of being in a state of existence that consists of being permanently unconscious things like grains of sand or like stars, or formerly but no longer conscious things like dead animal or human bodies, we have no way of arguing by analogy that after death we will enter into a state of existence in which we are completely unconscious from then on. Rather, the state of existence we can reasonably expect after death is one similar to the only kind we have known, i.e., as conscious, living, breathing human organisms who need air, water, and food.
Raymond Smullyan puts this more simply by stating that he believes in an afterlife because he can’t imagine himself not existing, and he says he thinks that’s the real reason, whether consciously or unconsciously, that people believe in an afterlife. He quotes Freud, an avowed unbeliever, in saying that in the unconscious everyone believes he or she is immortal.
This kind of expectation would satisfy Unamuno, who begins his great work On the Tragic Sense of Life by saying that he doesn’t want to attain immortality by being absorbed like a drop in the infinite Ocean of Being, or by becoming a disembodied spirit. Rather, he wants to be immortal by continuing to have his flesh and blood existence (literally “flesh and bone” in Spanish). It would also satisfy Woody Allen, who said, “I don’t want to live on in the hearts and minds of my countrymen. I want live on in my apartment.”
This line of thinking gives rise to an interesting question: Where will I be after I’m dead but continuing to have the same kind embodied existence I have now?
This is the first chapter of Dreams and Resurrection. Click on the Amazon link above to order your copy of Dreams and Resurrection now!