Monday, October 10, 2011

What does life after death mean?


My previous post, which explored the meaning of belief, was a first step in answering the question of whether I believe in life after death. This second, in a series of four posts that answer that question, examines what life after death denotes.

Life after death does not and cannot denote a continuation of physical existence. Many of the atoms in each human body have previously been part of another human body. Even substituting replacement atoms would result in a physical body that is not literally identical with a person’s original body. Additionally, if life after death denotes a continuation of physical existence, then many people (including the elderly, mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and severely diseased) would fare poorly, stuck with bodies that most of us would strongly prefer not to have.

Incidentally, defining the resurrection body as the physical body come to life explains why the Church burned heretics (to destroy the body) and forbid cremation (thereby preserving the body). Thankfully, most Christians have abandoned physical conceptions of new life that equate their current body with their body in life after death.

Similarly, life after death cannot reasonably connote continuation of a person’s spiritual existence unless humans possess an eternal soul (the finite necessarily has both a beginning and an end). As I have previously argued in this blog (Ethical Musings: Solving the mind-body problem; for a secular perspective, cf. Michael Graziano: The Spirit Ends When The Brain Dies), the existence of an eternal soul seems at best an exceedingly difficult claim to justify. Only when Jews borrowed from the Greeks and others the idea of an eternal soul (this was happening during Jesus’ time – recall the debates between the Pharisees and Sadducees about life after death) did it become necessary to envision eternal destinies for the good and bad. Prior to that time, Jews generally accepted death as the end of a person’s existence. If so, then God might graciously give a gift of new life to any God chose without any necessity to do so for those whom God did not choose.

Alternatively, one of my seminary professors, process theologian Marjorie Suchocki, contended that life after death consisted of a person living forever in the mind of God. Although that proposal has its challenges (e.g., how can a person sustain an independent existence?), her suggestion avoids the difficulties inherent in traditional physical and spiritualized definitions of life after death.

The Christian scriptures offer little help beyond a consistent affirmation that there is life after death and that this is a positive experience. The images and metaphors for life after death, as one would anticipate, have strong roots in the authors’ historical and cultural milieu. After all, what other images and metaphors would make sense to an author or to the author’s audience?

Christian biblical scholars and theologians have generally supported a dichotomous view of life after death: heaven for God's people and hell for all others. They sometimes understand hell as death, because apart from God no life can exist and because the idea of eternal punishment seems incongruous with a God who is love. A minority of biblical scholars and theologians, notably including William Barclay as well as the 18th and 19th century Universalists, have argued that God's love so firmly embraces each person that all receive the gift of eternal life.

Epistemologically, little or no evidence exists for life after death. Investigators routinely debunk claims of alleged contact between the living and the dead. The world’s great religions diverge widely in their teachings about life after death. Hinduism and Buddhism both teach reincarnation; ultimate liberation in both religions consists of ending an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth by entering into unity with the ultimate. Some Jewish traditions still teach that death marks the end of a life. Christianity and Islam both affirm life in heaven for the faithful. This lack of consistency makes drawing a conclusion based on human experience problematic.

Let me repeat the question with which I began the last post, what do I believe about life after death?

Frankly, I don’t know. I believe in the sense of desire and hope. But when I critically examine my life, I see little evidence that the trajectory of my life reflects an opinion, one way or the other, about life after death. The concept of life after death being life in the mind of God appeals but somehow seems unsatisfactory or inadequate.

In my next post, I’ll address the questions of whether belief in life after death is important and then in a fourth post what salvation means.

16 comments:

Calvin Marshall said...

George, I could be mistaken, but I suspect the existence of a soul was not originally posited to solve for a perceived mind-body problem. This implies that in order to invalidate the existence of a soul, one would need to demonstrate a preponderance of evidence suggesting an irrational supporting system of thought. While it’s true that beliefs about life about life after death are sometimes intertwined with superstition, I think there’s a core, reasonably compelling element that goes beyond man’s mere reluctance to leave this life and his loved ones. Explaining away the Christian belief in a soul in terms of its Greek origins appears to commit the genetic fallacy and says little about the reasonableness of the underlying doctrine.

The issue you raised about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection only seems applicable to the case where one maintains that a physical reconstitution of an individual implies qualitative, as opposed to numerical identity. A person’s cells are changed out many times throughout the course of a lifetime, yet we maintain it’s the same person.

George Clifford said...

Calvin,

Our cells are replaced many times during an individual’s life. However, that person does not remain the same person. There is a continuity of existence. Yet the person is not physically the same, changing from newborn to toddler to young adult to elderly (presuming the person lives that many years); abilities and capabilities vary dramatically. Similarly, the person’s psychological existence, completely based in the person’s biological existence, changes dramatically over the years, e.g., moving from the entirely self-centered newborn to a healthy adults who balances the needs of self and others to an elderly person psychologically crippled by senile dementia or Alzheimer’s.

One fundamental difficulty with positing an immaterial soul is the issue of how the immaterial and material interact, a problem that has bedeviled philosophers and theologians since Descartes and an interaction for which no scientific evidence exists.

Another fundamental difficulty with positing an immaterial soul is discerning the timing and method by which a person is ensouled if one accepts that humans are the product of evolution. The existence of a human spirit produced through the development of human capacities, which are nascent or latent in other species, coheres well with evolution. The human spirit has a naturalistic explanation and is reasonably considered the imago dei in humans. Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy lays out the underlying arguments much better than I have in these books Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? and Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, ed., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, and Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

Calvin Marshall said...

George,

I think we are in agreement on the first point – a person changes throughout the course of a lifetime, which implies a qualitative difference, while there is still a continuity of existence (i.e., I am still numerically identical to me).

It’s one thing to believe in the existence of something and another to know how a particular thing interacts with another thing. One may reasonably believe in the existence of a non-material soul while lacking a definitive answer as to how it interacts with the body. I agree that if one believes human beings to be the product of material causes solely, i.e., naturalistic evolution is true, it would be inconsistent to hold to an immaterial soul. However, if evolution is merely the mechanism that God has used to bring about the existence of human beings, I see no reason why God may not have infused man with a spiritual, non-material component to his existence that survives death. On this last point, i.e., God infusing man with a spiritual, non-material component to his existence, I think the Scriptures themselves provide a credible account. From my point of view the real problem is not so much how one can justify the existence of a soul, but rather how naturalistic evolution can escape the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that all of one’s feelings of freedom, value, morality, and love are illusion, being nothing but the result of irrational causes.

With regards to the imago dei, I’m not sure how one can justly speak of a human spirit (properly considered) that is purely the product of naturalistic, material causes.

George Clifford said...

The distinction you draw between believing something exists and understanding how that thing interacts with another is certainly valid. Unlike you, I find no evidence to support the existence of an immaterial soul, perceive the interaction problems as so significant that they suggest humans do not have an immaterial soul, and am comfortable with a naturalistic conception of the human spirit. (The word spirit seems less burdened with what I categorize as objectionable or problematic connotations than is the word soul.) Your point about God infusing the physical body with an immaterial puts you in good company that includes Thomas Aquinas and the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Feelings of freedom, value, morality, and love are not illusory nor the result of irrational causes but rooted in the naturalistic human spirit that consists of the quintessence of a human, i.e., human self-transcendence, linguistic capacity, aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, and the ability to love and be loved. If God is integral to the natural world, its creator and sustainer, then there is no need to think that the imago dei would not be entirely naturalistic.

Calvin Marshall said...

George,

In your estimation, what constitutes a human spirit? Does somehow the sum total of a human being’s molecular dynamic produce something that is more than the sum of its parts? You seem to intimate that the transcendent, or supernatural, is built in to the fabric of the world. I would be inclined to agree with you if this is what you’re advocating. Your comments leave me feeling a bit confused as on the one hand you seem careful to only admit the existence of what has a naturalistic explanation while on the other you believe in a transcendence that is integral to nature.

Regarding feelings of freedom, value, morality, etc., my point is that naturalistic evolution espouses the theory that the entirety of existence can fully be accounted for on natural law and physical process. If one consistently holds to naturalistic evolution as it is understood in science, the concept of human self-transcendence makes little sense.

George Clifford said...

Calvin, Your surmise about the existence of a soul not being posited to solve a perceived mind-body problem is correct; the concept of soul predates the latter by a couple of millennia or so. However, I believe knowledge progresses, i.e., is evolutionary in its development. Consequently, what humans posited centuries ago might need revision in light of developments in human knowledge and understanding. This, I think, is the case with the concept of the soul in view of the mind-body problem, questions about its emergence in the context of human evolutionary development, etc. The unsatisfactory nature of the concept of soul pushed me years ago toward rethinking the concept of human spirit.

I agree: any viable concept of resurrection emphasizes numerical continuity rather than physical reconstitution. However, that conclusion is a radical break with early Christian thinking about the resurrection, e.g., burning witches and heretics to prevent resurrection and insisting on burial for Christians.

Calvin Marshall said...

George,

Thanks for these additional comments. I think these are more focused on my earlier response. I'd be interested if you have further thoughts directed at my latest comments dated October 20, 2011 2:40 PM - i.e., what constitutes a human spirit, etc.

George Clifford said...

The human spirit that consists of the quintessence of a human, i.e., the human spirit has six aspects: self-transcendence, linguistic capacity, aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, and the ability to love and be loved. All of these emerge through evolution; and, as one might therefore expect, each aspect is visible, in considerably less developed ways, in other species. Each of the six has a long history of theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and others describing it has part of the human soul or spirit. However, I believe my pulling them together as the elements of the human spirit represents a first.

Calvin Marshall said...

The concept of self-transcendence appears to imply something that rises above, perhaps beyond, the mere matter that makes up the human body and the laws of physical nature that govern it. Is this what you mean to say? I ask because while your typical naturalist might be prepared to admit five of the aspects listed in your last response, he most definitely (at least if he’s consistent with his own principles) would deny self-transcendence, at least in the sense in which I’ve taken your comment.

George Clifford said...

Self-transcendence is sometimes called self-awareness. Self-transcendence is the sense of being aware of one’s self, the capacity to reflect about self. Wide agreement exists among practitioners of various disciplines that self-transcendence exists and is important for humans as humans. A broad consensus exists among theologians that without self-transcendence humans could not differentiate between self and another, whether that other is human or divine. Some naturalistic theologians (e.g., some process thinkers) contend that self-transcendence is the imago dei. I find that too narrow, preferring my broader concept of the human spirit. Self-transcendence is an emergent property of the brain, a property that is greater than the sum of the individual neurons and made possible by their linkages and interactions.

Calvin Marshall said...

I find the term self-transcendence a bit misleading when all one is thereby implying is the dynamic of a group of atoms and neurons in a particular configuration. To most people self-transcendence implies a rising above one’s nature. Even if one grants that some form of self-awareness is governed by the interaction and linkages of neurons, one does not thereby rise above the laws of nature that govern their interaction.

If one subscribes to a completely physical conception of the mind, i.e., the mind and brain are composed of the same physical matter, there are some rather serious considerations that should be kept in mind:

1) If one’s mind is made up of nothing but neurons and atoms, the concept of choice must not be understood to imply that one freely chooses one thing over another. One may feel he had a choice in a particular matter, but as a matter of fact his choice is completely explained by an arrangement of neurons and atoms strictly governed by laws of nature.
2) A group of neurons, no matter what their dynamic and linkages, are non rational, and cannot therefore provide a reasonable ground for belief of a given claim. Rationality cannot be derived from a non rational source. One may grant that neurons cause a belief, but they cannot be the ground for a belief. C.S. Lewis develops this thought in his chapter on The Cardinal Difficulty with Naturalism from Miracles: A Preliminary Study.

George Clifford said...

One of the difficulties with C.S. Lewis on the subject of brain and mind is that his thoughts, by virtue of when they were written, are dated. For example, the idea of emergent properties suggest that the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts. Depending upon which quantum physics theory one adopts and the year of one’s analysis, an atom is comprised of protons, neutrons, and electrons, each of which is comprised of other sub-atomic particles (I know too little about the sub-atomic particles to get more specific). The sub-atomic particles may behave like packets, or waves, or a seemingly impossible mixture of both. In any case, an atom has properties not associated with any of its constituent parts – emergent properties. Similarly, although the human brain is entirely comprised of cells, which in turn are entirely comprised of physical matter, the combination of cells in a brain makes possible a set of interactions, including consciousness, that does not exist apart from a brain. Furthermore, physical material organized into the right patterns can effect top-down causality, not just the bottom-up causality we usually think of in terms of physics. For example, the brain makes possible language, which permits the transmission and development of knowledge in a way not otherwise possible.

Pure rationality probably does not exist. The neurons in our brains function in response to patterns, influenced by the state of the chemical soup in our heads, which varies over time. One of the determinants of that soup’s composition is our lymphic system, a prime source of human emotions. Arguing that rationality cannot come from non-rationality denies the existence of self-organizing dynamic systems, for which science has pretty good evidence.

Calvin Marshall said...

I would not deny, and I don’t think Lewis would, that rationality (if one defines rationality only in terms of one’s ability to have thoughts as part of a line of cause-effect events in response to physical stimuli) is not possible on a purely physical conception of the mind. However, knowing claims to be something more than stimuli and brain soup; it implies the ability to reason logically from ground to consequent, i.e., to have a real insight. I infer from your denial of what you call “pure rationality”, that you are essentially conceding (and agreeing with Lewis for that matter) that the value of your beliefs (religious, political, or otherwise) is questionable. From an evolutionary perspective, your beliefs may produce a decided advantage in terms of survival, but their claim to be something more than just a response to physical stimuli is unfounded. As Lewis underscores in his chapter on "The Cardinal Difficulty with Naturalism" in "Miracles: A Preliminary Study":

“Unless our conclusion is the logical conclusion from a ground it will be worthless and could be true only by a fluke…To be caused is not to be proved. Wishful thinking, prejudices, and the delusions of madness, are all caused, but they are ungrounded. Indeed to be caused is so different from being proved that we behave in disputation as if they were mutually exclusive. The mere existence of causes for a belief is popularly treated as raising a presumption that it is groundless, and the most popular way of discrediting a person’s opinions is to explain them causally…The implication is that if causes fully account for a belief, then, since causes work inevitably, the belief would have had to arise whether it had grounds or not. We need not, it is felt, consider grounds for something which can be fully explained without them.”

George Clifford said...

Calvin, I would phrase this (from your comment – “their claim to be something more than just a response to physical stimuli is unfounded”) in a more nuanced manner (“their claim to be something more than just a response to physical stimuli is best held tentatively because of limits of human knowledge may require future revision as knowledge increases”). Human perceptions of causality are sometimes mistaken, e.g., correlation has more than once masqueraded as causation. Yet, seeking to identify and to understand causes is important for advancing knowledge. I certainly disagree with Lewis’ comment that explaining a person’s beliefs causally discredits those beliefs. All beliefs – even beliefs selected with apparent randomness – have causes. Also, I don’t know what Lewis meant by this sentence: “To be caused is not to be proved.” Additionally, philosophers often seek to explain causation as simply as possible, an approach I find untenable. Many things are what philosophy calls over determined, i.e., having multiple causes each sufficient to explain the thing by itself.

Calvin Marshall said...

George,

You seem to be saying you agree that beliefs can be fully explained as response to physical stimuli but leave way that beliefs may be responses to something else as well. Have I correctly understood you?

You are right that all beliefs have causes. An important distinction should be made though when speaking about a belief being caused. A belief can arise as a consequent of logical ground, e.g., I believe in God because it’s clear something can’t come from absolute nothingness. Or a belief can arise as a consequent of more or less external circumstances, e.g., I believe in God because my parents believe in God. When Lewis says “the most popular way of discrediting a person’s opinions is to explain them causally”, I take him to mean that from the popular point of view, the value of a particular belief is undermined to the extent that it can be shown to arise (i.e., to be caused) from external circumstances, as opposed to a belief that more clearly arises as a consequent of a reasonable ground. If one believes in God merely because his parents believe in God, a person might justly suspect that the person’s belief (in God) is without sufficient ground (i.e., it would be discredited); his belief would be caused (by his parents’ belief), but his belief in God would be unproven. This is not to say that person’s belief in God would be untrue (it may in fact be true), only that his belief has not been proven. Interestingly, you appear to use this same line of reasoning (explaining a belief causally discredits it) in your original post, writing that the Christian conception of a soul can be explained (at least in part) by Greek influence.

If beliefs arise only as a result of physical stimuli and brain soup (i.e., they are externally caused), beliefs will arise regardless of whether they are in fact true or not; they are causally explained in the external sense. The implication is that beliefs, or for that matter anything we infer, are not about insight or truth about things as they really are; rather they are the result of inexorable laws of physical nature that are geared only to the survival of the species. Beliefs may be true, but only as it were, by accident.

George Clifford said...

Calvin, I’m not sure that I understand the categories you are using in your last comment. Physical stimuli are both internal and external. An internal physical stimuli may consist of a misfiring neuron or indigestion, for example. External physical stimuli originate outside the body. Defining non-physical stimuli is much more problematic. For example, are forces such as gravity, which we experience (taking it for granted at sea level but having a much different experience in outer space), or light physical stimuli? What about brain waves, i.e., electromagnetic energy? Do humans react to at least some parts of that spectrum, given that emit waves along narrow portions of it? Are other forces effectual human stimuli? Perhaps our encounter with God is the latter.

I do not think that beliefs can arise on logical grounds, apart perhaps from some mathematical propositions, but suspect that even these have their ultimate origin in actual observations. Your point that something can’t come from absolute nothingness, for example, has its roots in observation of particular external phenomena that give rise to the more premise that effects have causes. (My comment about the Greek origin of the Christian notion of the soul is to show that the idea did not emerge directly from the Judeo-Christian tradition for those who find such an origin authoritative.)

Beliefs do arise regardless of their truth. My experience with the eye exam (a light shone in my left eye that I believed to be shining in my right eye) illustrates the body/brain processes external (and internal, for that matter) stimuli in ways that fail to guarantee fidelity to the stimuli. Our bodies/brains, as you note, did develop to enable the survival of the species and are not necessarily about truth or insight. For example, in an object that humans perceive as solid, the matter in fact occupies less than half of the space; the remainder of the space is empty. Yet we perceive and experience a solid, a misperception yet one useful for survival.