The belief in an afterlife stems from China, India, and the Middle East, originating in Ancient Egypt. Almost all world religions hold that there is some sort of life or existence after death. The Abrahamic religions, for example, tend to believe in an afterlife in heaven, whereas Buddhism believes in reincarnation and samsara. Thus, if life after death were impossible, then many of these religions would become invalid and be replaced by nihilism. On the other hand, people may turn to the Epicurean ideals of hedonism and pleasure in their search for a purpose in life. Indeed, this seems to be what a number of today’s atheists have done. The religious belief in life after death appears to have been founded as a form of wish-fulfilment, and so many people have turned away from religion altogether. Since there is no proof of an afterlife, we should assume that death is final and that “To live at all is miracle enough.”
One of the reasons for belief in the afterlife is the belief in an eternal soul. Throughout history scholars and philosophers have attributed our thoughts, feelings and personalities to a distinct, metaphysical entity, the mind or the soul. Plato and Descartes are two of the most-renowned dualist philosophers, and both claim that the soul lives on after death and is eternal. But even if we postulate the existence of the soul, there is no evidence for its immortality. Aristotle, whose dualist principles were very influenced by Heraclitus, presents his views about the soul in his book De Anima. Although he believes that the body and the soul (or ‘anima’) are distinct, he saw them as inseparable. He claimed that when a person dies, their soul dies with them, since the soul is the “cause and principle of the living body”. Thus, belief in the soul does not necessarily mean belief in an afterlife, since a soul is not necessarily immortal. In fact, if the soul is indeed the source of animation for the body, then there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it can exist independently. Furthermore, the actual existence of the soul is questionable. Although Descartes claims that “cogito ergo sum” (his famous aphorism from his Meditations, meaning “I think therefore I am,”) proves a priori that there is some sort of metaphysical “me,” most modern philosophers reject his theory. Descartes was simply ignorant of the mind and its scientific functions, and so Cartesian Dualism is based largely on fideism, seeking to explain the unexplainable with the supernatural. Moreover, Immanuel Kant criticises Descartes’s theory for assuming too readily that, because we use the nouns ‘soul’ or ‘mind’, that they must exist ontologically. He says that Descartes, just by defining the ‘soul’, does not prove its existence. Therefore, since the afterlife relies on the existence of a soul, we are forced to accept that it is impossible.
However, many religious people might argue against this view and continue to believe in the existence of the soul. Christians, for example, see Jesus’ resurrection as proof of a soul, and indeed of an afterlife. They claim that, because somebody has overcome death, our lives are not necessarily finite. Indeed, St Paul said that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” He also says that, if one does not believe in Christ’s resurrection, then there is no foundation for the belief in life after death. Paul believes in bodily resurrection (as stated in the Apostle’s Creed), and he differentiates between the body we have in life (the material, imperfect ‘sarx’) and the body we are given in heaven (the imperishable, glorious ‘soma’). While the ‘psyche’ carries on after death, the ‘sarx’ is swapped for the ‘soma,’ and in this way Paul proposes belief in an eternal life. St Thomas Aquinas also supports the belief in bodily resurrection, although he believes that the body is simply reunited with the soul in heaven, rather than being replaced entirely. Aquinas baptises Aristotelian thoughts in that both referred to the soul as the ‘anima’. Aquinas saw them as two entities that interact with one another: “The soul is what makes our body live…” However, Aquinas, unlike Aristotle, believes in an afterlife. He suggests that, because of the link between particular bodies and particular souls, they are essential to one another and are united in heaven. Thus, although Christian beliefs about the afterlife vary, Christ’s resurrection is seen as proof of an eternal afterlife with God.
Although these theories may be convincing to people who already believe in God, they are improvable and fideistic. Moreover, as well as there being no empirical proof of the resurrection, there is also no real record of its happening. Jesus’ is only seen resurrected and alive once in the entirety of the Gospels, the biographical part of the Bible. It is recorded in Mark 16 9-20: “When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared to Mary Magdalene…” However, the earliest manuscripts do not have verses 9-20, and so we can assume that they were added later to support belief in the resurrection. In fact, in Mark 16 1-9 nobody actually sees Jesus: his tomb is simply found empty, with a strange man inside claiming that Jesus has been resurrected. The only other part of the Bible that records Jesus’ resurrection is the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke a number of years later. This desire to affirm and strengthen faith in the resurrection could imply that there was doubt about Christ’s resurrection even during the time immediately following his death. This lack of evidence therefore defeats the Christian belief in immortality, since it is founded in faith only.
John Hick, a Christian philosopher and theologian, takes a very different, monist view on life after death. He tries to argue that life after death is possible by putting forward his ‘Replica Theory’. He says that replication is the best way to describe what happens after death, although he does not necessarily believe in the theory itself. He argues that if somebody disappeared and an exact replica of them appeared in another country, they would still be the same person. This theory shows that, philosophically, bodily continuity is not absolutely necessary for belief in the afterlife. He then goes on to suggest that, at death, God creates a replica in a “resurrection world which does not stand in a spatial relationship with the physical world.” This belief, rather than relying wholly upon the existence of a soul, relies on an omnipotent God that could replicate human beings into a new place, or indeed a heaven. A soul is not necessary for this replication, and so Hick’s theory avoids the problems of the Cartesian and Platonic arguments for an afterlife. Hick, who became a pluralist later on in his life, also put forward the ‘Multiple Resurrection Theory’ (in his essay “Ressurection”), which differs dramatically from his former proposition. He suggests “a series of finite lives, each beginning, morally and spiritually, where the last left off.” This theory is hugely influenced by the Buddhist belief in reincarnation and the ongoing Karmic wave. He integrates his beliefs in soul-making and human development into this theory.
However, these theories are still weak because of thier reliance on the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God and an eternal soul. As aforementioned, the soul, or indeed the mind, has been largely disproven by modern science. Kant’s arguments against Descartes (that we should not assume the existence of the soul) have been developed by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, both at the forefront of Biological Reductionism. Pinker points out that the activities of the brain cause the so-called ‘mind’. Thus, the mind is simply a collection of electrical, magnetic, or metabolic impulses in the synapses of the brain. He goes on to say: “We know that when the brain dies, the person goes out of existence.” John Searle, an American philosopher and professor at Berkeley, holds a similar position. He claims that mental phenomena are features of the brain, and that there are two levels of description in the brain: at a higher level, intention causes actions, but at a lower level, the electrical impulses in our bodies cause them. This would therefore show that the mind is only a product of the brain’s impulses. Dawkins too argues against the existence of a soul, and thus against the existence of an afterlife. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins cites Daniel Dennet’s understanding of human nature. He says that, in order to survive, human beings developed the ability to judge the thoughts and intentions of others, and this encouraged us to hold a dualistic view of life, since we felt we could put ourselves into one another’s shoes. Thus Dawkins proves that our belief in the soul is founded on nothing, and that we are simply “psychologically primed for religion”. Therefore, if the soul does not exist, then life after death is impossible.
Believing in life after death largely boils down to a belief in the soul. If one does not believe in the soul, it is very hard, in fact almost impossible, to postulate an afterlife. The fact that there is no proof of the soul, and the fact that modern science has explained thoughts, personality, and consciousness, therefore implies that life after death is indeed impossible. Richard Dawkins suggests that religions preach a belief in immortality simply because it is a subjectively appealing doctrine, rather than a proven fact. He writes: “The idea of immortality itself survives and spreads because it caters to wishful thinking.” This brings me back to my original point: life after death is simply a form of wish-fulfilment, as is the belief in human purpose. Dawkins, in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, proposes a humanist interpretation of life and existence. He explains that, because our existence is so utterly improbable, it is amazing that we are alive at all. He writes: “In other words, it is overwhelmingly improbable that you are dead.” Thus we should relish our lives, rather than hope in vain for an impossible afterlife. There is no need for a heaven or a beatific vision simply because our lives are so unlikely, special, and exciting. Rather than living life in order to reach heaven, we should live life for life’s sake, for its beauty and wonder.