Is There an Afterlife?

By John G. Messerly, Ph.D. | 4 March 2018
Reason and Meaning

(Photo: Carl Jones / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Belief in immortality is widespread, as anthropological studies reveal, but most people regard death as the ultimate tragedy and crave continued existence. Yet there is little if any evidence for immortality; and we do not personally know anyone who came back from the dead to tell us about an afterlife. Still, many people cling to any indirect evidence they can—near death experiences, belief in reincarnation, ghost stories, communication with the dead, and the like. The problem is that none of this so-called evidence stands up well to critical scrutiny. It is so much more likely that the propensity of individuals to deceive or be deceived explains such beliefs than that these phenomena are real. Those who accept such evidence are most likely grasping at straws—engaging in wishful thinking.

Modern science generally ignores this so-called evidence for an afterlife for a number of reasons. First, the soul which is thought immortal plays no explanatory or predictive role in the modern scientific study of human beings. Second, overwhelming evidence supports the view that consciousness ceases when brain functioning does. If ghosts or disembodied spirits exist, then we would be forced to rethink much of modern science—such as the belief that consciousness cannot exist without matter!

Of course, this cursory treatment of the issue does not establish that an afterlife is impossible, especially since that possibility depends on answers to complicated philosophical questions about personal identity and the mind-body problem. But suffice it to say that explaining either the dualistic theory of life after death—where the soul separates from the body at death and lives forever—or the monist theory—where a new glorified body related to the earthly body lives on forever—is extraordinarily difficult. In the first case substance dualism must be defended, and in the second case, the miraculous idea of the new body must be explained. Either way, the philosophical task is enormous. Clearly, the scientific winds are blowing against these ancient beliefs.

So while personal immortality is logically possible, it’s easy enough to see it isn’t plausible. I live under the assumption that my consciousness depends on a functioning brain, and as that functioning deteriorates, so to will my consciousness. At the point at which my brain no longer functions, I assume my brain won’t either. When I die, I probably won’t move to a better neighborhood. However, it’s possible that my cryonically preserved brain can be reanimated, that future generations will possess the computing power to run ancestor simulations, or that some other future technology will defeat death. But as things stand now, there is no good reason to believe my consciousness can literally survive death. When I die I doubt that I’ll move to a better neighborhood.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

John G. Messerly received his PhD in philosophy in 1992. He has taught at St. Louis University and The University of Texas at Austin. He is currently an Affiliated member of the Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Group localized at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, and an Affiliate Scholar of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

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  1. While I am alive I am called a human being. When I die I will be called human remains. While I live I am a composite of life generating intellectual spirit attached to a masterpiece of biological engineering. My spirit is the responsible entity WHO directs and operates the system. My body is the WHAT that carries out the wishes and commands of the WHO to thrust me into the future and perfect reality.. When I die my human remains are recycled and my more perfect spirit goes some where else.


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