Steve Stewart-Williams Ph.D.

The Nature-Nurture-Nietzsche Blog

Longing for an Afterlife

Is there life after death? Of course not!

Posted May 11, 2010

Human beings know something terrible. We know that one day we're going to wake up, and it will be the last time we ever do. We know that one day will be the last day of our lives. We know, in short, that one day - inevitably, inexorably, inescapably - we're going to die. It is an unfortunate by-product of our intelligence that we are burdened with this knowledge, knowledge that no other animal on the planet could hope to possess. And it is, to use the technical term, a bit of a bummer.

But how big a bummer is it? The answer to this question hinges on what exactly happens after death. If we continue to exist in some sense, then it's maybe not so bad. Sure, we might miss our old life for a while, but as long as we're resilient, we'll surely soon adjust. So here's our question: What, if anything, happens after death?

In every culture and every historical epoch, most people have believed that we survive the death of the body. One might want to claim this as evidence in favour of survival, but of course different people have held very different beliefs about what survival involves, which weakens the argument considerably. To begin with, a distinction can be drawn between beliefs that posit continued existence outside the body, and those that posit continued existence within the body. Survival outside the body is variously conceived as survival in an astral or ghost body, or survival as a disembodied mind. A popular belief along these lines is that, at death, the soul disentangles itself from the body and migrates to an after-world (e.g., heaven, hell, the happy hunting ground). There are also a number of ideas about survival within a physical body. One is the traditional Judeo-Christian and Islamic doctrine that God will resurrect our bodies in the future, at which time we will face his judgment for our conduct in this life. Another is the doctrine of reincarnation, found among Hindus, Buddhists, and many New Agers. All these conceptions of life after death have in common the fact that the individual person survives in some sense. This is not a feature of all survival beliefs, however. Some strains of Buddhism, for example, hold that the individual mind ultimately merges back into a universal mind - that in death, we sink back into the state of inorganic matter and are reabsorbed into the oneness of everything.

It's quite a menu of options, but is there any reason to think that any of them is the slightest bit probable? Charles Darwin once wrote: ‘As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities'. But the case against survival is stronger than Darwin here allows. The best argument is based on the fact that, as far as we can tell, the mind is dependent on the activity of the brain. Neuroscientists have shown that when you look at something - when you have a conscious visual experience - certain parts of your brain become more active. If you then close your eyes and merely imagine the same visual scene, the same parts of your brain again become active. If you electrically stimulate the visual areas of the brain, this produces conscious visual experiences. Stimulating other sensory areas produces other sensory experiences. Other things that influence brain states, such as recreational drugs, simultaneously influence states of mind. It seems that everything we are conscious of - every sensation, feeling, recollection, or thought - is associated with activity in the brain... or, better yet, is activity in the brain.

But if the mind is the activity of the brain, then the mind can no more survive independently of a functioning brain than the beating of the heart can survive independently of a functioning heart. Here's how David Hume put the point several centuries ago:

"The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned; their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness, their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death."

We know that when part of the brain is destroyed, so too is part of the mind. Can we believe that when the brain is completely destroyed, the mind, rather than being completely destroyed also, is instead completely restored? Without a strong reason to think that this is the case, it is much more reasonable to assume that our conscious existence ends with the death of the brain.

The fact that the mind is dependent on the brain essentially rules out survival outside a physical body - no heaven, no hell. It also rules out reincarnation, as reincarnation requires the persistence of a mind without a brain between incarnations, a mind that can be transferred from one brain to another. Furthermore, as the philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out, even if survival of death were possible in principle (a doubtful proposition), ‘there would be no selective pressure for the survival of bodily death, for this would not lead to greater reproductive success'. It seems that we must conclude, along with the writer Vladimir Nabokov, that ‘our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness'. Brains that think otherwise - brains that deny they are brains and believe instead that they are eternal souls - are brains that hold false beliefs about themselves.

Having established this point, we might want to ask why people so consistently fear death. If death is nothing, then surely there is nothing to fear. We do not regret our past non-existence, so why do we regret the prospect of our future non-existence? We do not mourn the fact that our loved ones did not exist before they were born, so why do we mourn their non-existence after they die? To a purely logical mind, these questions would seem perfectly reasonable. But given the importance of survival for evolved beings, it is hardly surprising that we instinctively fear death and mourn our loved ones. According to the philosopher Derek Parfit, ‘In giving us this attitude, Evolution denies us the best attitude to death'. The fear of death is an unpleasant - and ultimately unfounded - gift from natural selection.

-This is the condensed, "Readers Digest" version of a section of the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life by Steve Stewart-Williams - available now from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.uk.

Follow Steve Stewart-Williams on Twitter

See also my post on the putative evidence for life after death.