You and I share something. In fact, we share it with our loved ones, with every person, animal or plant we have ever come in contact with, and with the ones we haven’t ever glimpsed. We are impermanent. Yet, despite our common fate, our mortality is typically not fodder for everyday conversation. How do we avoid perseverating on this topic? Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist, penned a book in 1973 titled The Denial of Death in which he argued that human civilization is essentially designed to serve as a defense mechanism against the knowledge of our inevitable demise. He believed we crave immortality, not only in the literal sense, but symbolically, that we crave to leave behind something that will outlive our bodies.
As such, perhaps it is not all that surprising that the notion of an afterlife has maintained its popularity throughout the ages, despite the fact that evidence supporting its existence is sketchy at best. Sure, every now and again someone will die for a moment and return, only to swear they saw fluffy clouds, bright lights, and fair maidens, but those people haven’t had time to sufficiently decompose (which would greatly improve their credibility). Nevertheless, according to a Pew Report from 2008, roughly three quarters of Americans believe in an afterlife, with more respondents professing a belief in Heaven than in Hell. Yet belief in an afterlife is not just for religious folks anymore. The afterlife comes in many flavors, just as one might predict after reading Becker’s work.
Consider, for example, the recent proposal put forth by Samuel Scheffler, a professor of philosophy and law at NYU. Scheffler advocates a view of the afterlife that is far from transcendental. Rather, he contends that the afterlife is comprised of the knowledge that humanity will exist for a long time after we die; those who outlive us are our afterlife. To wit, Scheffler points out that if you knew for a fact that the world would cease to exist 30 days after your death, you would likely lead your life quite differently. For example, why spend a lifetime of research searching for a cure for cancer, male-pattern baldness, or global warming if the world is approaching its final stanza? Why leave an inheritance, raise a family, or avoid littering?
This collectivist account of the afterlife is certainly in keeping with Becker’s notion of symbolic legacy, as a legacy inherently presumes future humans will exist to appreciate it. After all, few among us desire to be remembered and revered by future generations of barn owls. Of course, one interesting corollary that follows from Scheffler’s proposal is that, by extension, we are currently living in someone else’s afterlife. This comes as a disappointment for those of us aspiring to be taller in the world to come.
While Scheffler’s views might be congenial with any belief system, there are some scientists who advocate for a more transcendental view of the afterlife. Consider, for example, stem cell guru Robert Lanza. When he is not off cloning bovines, he advocates for biocentrism, the view that our consciousness creates the universe and therefore our reality. His theory relies on biology and quantum physics (I’m convinced that quantum is actually a latin prefix meaning “things you aren’t going to understand…”). Needless to say, it is a complex theory whose evidence comes from controversial double-slit experiments with photons (I feel smarter even typing that). The bottom line is that consciousness may not die with the body and that there could be parallel universes to this one. I particularly like this latter idea, as I’d like to meet another version of myself, if for no other reason than to see if he is having better luck with orthotics.
Lanza’s theory would certainly have found a supporter in Ian Stevenson, a former professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia. Stevenson spent his career collecting eerie anecdotes from children who claimed to remember past lives. While his work was compelling, Stevenson was derided by his colleagues, a fate that often befalls researchers who rely on the anecdotal method. Perhaps the most telling aspect of his research was his final experiment. Before his death, he set a combination lock using a secret phrase, with the thought that he would try to pass it on to someone after his death. To date (to the best of my knowledge), it has never been opened. If anyone at UVA is reading this, please try “Blueberry Shtreimel”. Don’t ask how I know.
Of course, none of the Pew Respondents probably had these views of the afterlife in mind. Far more likely, their views accord more with the notion of a Divine Meritocracy; the idea that good will be rewarded and evil punished. I won’t comment extensively on the likelihood of this being true, other than pointing out that this view seems awfully, well, human. It assumes the presence of an omnipotent being who curiously has gone into the business of creating mortal life and then grading our performance like a schoolmarm. The truth is, I have no special insights to refute this claim. That said, the more the future world is meant to approximate a better version of this one, the harder I find it to believe (i.e., if you plan on engaging virgins in the next world, then by all means, bring a penis. Otherwise, it could be a very long game of canasta with a bunch of prudes).
As for Ernst Becker, a year after he published The Denial of Death, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Of course, it was awarded to him posthumously, as colon cancer claimed his life before he turned 50. However, the true irony is that by penning this work Becker managed to achieve his own central premise: creating an enduring legacy that outlived his body.
I’ll close by saying that no matter what your view on the afterlife entails, I highly recommend thinking about your death at least once per day. Doing so could help you appreciate the time you have left and maybe not sweat the small stuff quite as much. To quote Bob Marley “But if you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on Earth."