Oct 02, 2015 | By George Gantz
Life After Death – An Eternal Mystery?
Of all the questions dividing science and religion, the question of whether there is life after death is one of the most important, as the answer defines our ultimate and eternal state. The physical death of our body has always been fundamental and unavoidable. What comes next, if anything, for our conscious mind or soul, is a compelling mystery; one that humanity has grappled with since culture began.
“Life after death” is an oxymoron. Death is, after all, the ending of life. However, as conscious beings we seem to have multiple levels of experience – physical, mental, emotional and perhaps spiritual. It is natural to wonder whether these modes of experience are, in some way, independent of the body. Perhaps conscious experience in the mental or spiritual domain continues after the body dies.
Evidence relative to this claim is problematic. We are alive and embodied in a physical world that we can see and touch. Death is the extinguishment of these conditions. After death we no longer inhabit the physical body that hosted us, and whatever existence we may have does not offer immediate and clear interaction with those who are still physically embodied. While living individuals, including many alive today, have claimed to experience or communicate with the non-physical, or post-physical, world, these experiences are relatively rare and, since they are subjective, difficult to verify. On the other hand, even if one rejects all such evidence, it is impossible to prove that such a non-physical world does not exist. (see: http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/are-miracles-real/)
Empirical science and its commitment to community verification has been very valuable in helping the human race discard many false stories and improve our understanding of and control over the physical world in which we live. Yet science is unable to deal with propositions that cannot be falsified – Karl Popper labeled them “unscientific” – and the possibility of life after death is one of them.
In spite of this, some devotees to the scientific paradigm extend empiricism to the epistemological level – claiming that if something is not physical it is not real. In the face of claims about life after death from religious believers or individuals recounting near death experience, physicalists decry them as illusions, hallucinations or superstitions. This is a facile response that seeks to deny the legitimacy of these claims and avoid the truth – that they cannot be falsified. It amounts to no more than adopting one unverifiable belief (only the physical is real) in place of another unverifiable belief (life after death is real).
Humans have a remarkable capacity to make sense of intractable questions such as this one. We are prolific storytellers — our ability to make sense of the world we live in and integrate it with who we are as individuals and cultures is grounded in the stories we devise and share. Some of these stories derive from direct experience – others may arise from imagination or creative exploration. As we know, the precise lines between observation, memory and imagination are blurred, and as stories are told and retold through time or across generations, accuracy yields to other personal or cultural values. Meaning and understanding changes – even as it does in the child’s “telephone” game, passing a phrase around a table in whispers from one person to the next. Applied to the historical evolution of mythology or “old wives’ tale”, the literal basis or imaginative origin for any given story may be lost in the mists of time – but the story nevertheless may have meaning and reflect truth in a different sense than the literal. Whether we are dealing with creation myths, life after death or Santa Claus, the stories we tell can have significant meaning and value.
This gives a broader context for considering the question of life after death. It seems that the truth in a logical or scientific sense, will never be known. Yet the question has great significance and meaning to each of us.
So, you might ask, how can we possibly approach this question rationally, if we cannot know the truth? Is there, or is there not, life after death? What are we supposed to believe?
You may not have a basis in your experience for affirming a belief in life after death. Moreover, you cannot force yourself to “believe” in something when you do not. However, the arguments above demonstrate that it is rational to suspend your disbelief, and irrational not to do so.
In the next post on this topic I will talk about different ways to consider the life after death question, once you have “suspended disbelief”. I hope you will join me.