Is There Life After Death?
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Is there life after death?

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"In the unconscious
every one of us
is convinced of his immortality"

Sigmund Freud
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Introduction

Is there life after death? We recognize the radical disruption that death represents. In a moment, your memories, your experiences, your personality all seem to disappear. With your last breath, you cease to exist. From dust you came and to dust you return.

Is there more? The questions perplex us even today. Could we ever know if there was anything beyond the grave? How? Perhaps some essential part of us survives death and existsforever? Many ideas have been proposed: an immortal soul, a resurrected body, or a reincarnated being. Why are such beliefs so ubiquitous, when the evidence is so inconclusive? And if we could live on, would we necessarily want to?

The question haunted our earliest ancestors, and the answer remains elusive to this day. In this series of essays, we asked philosophers, theologians, and scientists: Is there life after death?

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Opinions

Stephen Cave

Stephen Cave holds a doctorate in metaphysics from the University of Cambridge. He has written extensively on philosophical and scientific subjects, and is the author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization.

The belief that we each have a soul that can survive the death of our bodies is extremely widespread. Ideas of the soul can be found in civilizations from ancient Egypt to the shamans of Siberia. Most Christians, Muslims, and Hindus alive today—nearly five billion people—profess to believe in something like it. Anthropologists have therefore called this belief a “human universal,” meaning it is found in every known society.

This is surprising, given no one has ever seen one. (Unless, that is, you believe people see ghosts, and that ghosts are departed souls.) Your soul is by its nature supposed to be non-physical and so presumably invisible—light, after all, only bounces off physical objects. That makes it a difficult thing for which to collect convincing evidence. 

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John Martin Fischer

John Martin Fischer is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at University of California-Riverside.

Plato ends the Republic by recounting a profound “near-death experience” (NDE). In the philosophical canon, it is an old topic, but one that is receiving renewed interest from philosophers, scientists, and, indeed, the general public. Although people have had NDEs for millennia, there is increasing interest in the subject in recent times, beginning with the 1975 publication of Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life. The bestselling book Proof of Heaven, by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander M.D., and the popular movie Heaven is For Real (about the NDE of a young boy, Colton Burpo), have intensified interest in the subject.

Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin and I have written a book that seeks to explain and understand these fascinating and deeply meaningful experiences: Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife (Oxford University Press, forthcoming, Spring 2016). Here I shall sketch some of the main themes of the book—issues that arise in any serious consideration of NDEs.

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Justin L. Barrett

Justin L. Barrett is Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Director of the Thrive Center at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology.

Li Cha De, a teacher, scrambled to get to work on time in the morning without having had breakfast. Besides being extremely hungry and thirsty, he was also very tired, because he had stayed up late the night before preparing his teaching materials. Adding to this, he was in a bad mood, as he suspected his wife was having an affair with another man; she hadn’t come home until midnight and refused to tell him where she had been. Upon approaching the school, he accidentally hit the car’s accelerator and died instantaneously in an accident.

This fictional tale was part of a Chinese team’s study of afterlife beliefs in a southeastern industrial city in China. When asked directly whether death is the end, the vast majority confidently said that it is; but when given this story, followed by specific queries concerning aspects of the Li Cha De’s post mortem state, the answers told a different tale. Concerning traits closely linked to bodily states such as being hungry, most participants said that the deceased would no longer be hungry, but when it came to other mental states, such as desires, their confidence in an absolute end dropped.

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John Martin Fischer

John Martin Fischer is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at University of California-Riverside.

Death is typically seen as an unfortunate and regrettable thing. Certainly, premature death is viewed in this way; indeed, a premature death is often thought to be the worst thing that can happen to an individual. But what if we could eliminate death entirely? What if we could live forever?

On first blush, since death can be a terrible thing for an individual, one would think that immortality would be highly desirable. And for many people it is. The search for the fountain of youth continues today, through the immensely popular quest for anti-aging medicines, cosmetic surgery, and various other treatments to fend off aging. 

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Jon D. Levenson

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. His new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism, is due to appear in October (Princeton University Press).

Both by etymology and by historical usage, the term “immortality” suggests deathlessness. It is associated with the notion that human beings harbor within them an indestructible core that survives the inevitable demise of the body. Where immortality is affirmed without qualification, a corollary assumption is found: death is ultimately unreal. The real self—the essential, disembodied self, known as the soul—endures. In modern culture, those who affirm immortality tend to find the idea psychologically comforting: our lives do not end at biological death, but continue in spiritual bliss or at least in freedom from suffering.

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Strohminger, Garfield & Nichols

Nina Strohminger is a postdoctoral scholar at the Yale School of Management. Jay Garfield is Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at National University of Singapore. Shaun Nichols is Professor of Philosophy a

Unlike Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism embraces the idea that there is no self, only a sequence of ever-changing and impermanent psychophysical processes. Just as one cannot step into the same river twice, there is no such thing as a continuous self, a single “me” that persists over time. Because there is no continuous self in life, there is no self to preserve in death.

The Buddhist no-self doctrine is sometimes said to alleviate a familiar source of suffering: fear of death. By focusing early and often on how the self is continually dying, many Buddhist scholars argue, one is able to make peace with death of the physical body. Buddhists also believe that embracing the no-self doctrine is central to the elimination of suffering: when one does away with the self, egocentricity and selfishness go with it.

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Meghan Sullivan

Meghan Sullivan is Professor of Philosophy at University of Notre Dame.

In April 2014 my tennis-playing, non-drinking, non-smoking, seemingly healthy, 57-year-old father had a sudden heart attack. He survived, but the days that followed forced our family to confront some hard realities about his health. We spent a lot of time playing “best possible outcome.” What could we hope for from catheterization? From triple bypass surgery? When could he leave intensive care? And to ourselves we wondered—more quietly—what would happen if he died?

Death is, of course, inevitable. I have long known that in a vague way. And like many people, my views on the afterlife are informed by religious commitments (in my case Catholic ones). But it is one thing to debate eschatological theories over cocktails with friends. It is something else entirely to be asked what I sincerely hope would happen to my father if his heart failed tomorrow. Or what I hope would happen to me if my heart failed tomorrow.

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Kevin Timpe

Kevin Timpe is Professor of Philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University.

“Is there life after death?” A philosopher’s first instinct is to try to clarify just what people mean when they ask this question. What presuppositions exist behind that question that would place limits upon what would be considered a satisfactory answer?

First, the question presupposes that the thing that lives after death is one and the same as the thing that has died. Suppose, for example, I claim that there is in fact life after death. The proof? My parents have died, but I am still alive. That would strike most people as an unsatisfactory response.

Of course, the question of what it will look like for me to live again will depend on what what kind of thing I am in the first place. Am I an animal? Am I an immaterial soul? Am I something else? Mind you, even once we settle the issue of what kind of thing I am, life after death still presupposes that that very thing (“me”) lives after death.

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Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright

Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, DD, FRSE, is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of St Andrews. He was formerly Bishop of Durham in the Church of England.

Immortality is the condition of not being subject to death. The ancient pagan view of the gods as “immortal” was one way (along with their invisibility) of distinguishing them from humans; in other respects (such as their moral behaviour), they seemed similar. Humans were mortal, visible, and they died; gods were immortal, invisible, and didn’t.

There were wrinkles in this theory. Homer describes a shadowy underworld in which ex-humans had some kind of existence, but it was neither embodied nor happy. Such beings were like faded old photographs of their former selves.

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Sam Parnia

Physician and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Stony Brook University.

As an unintended consequence of developing lifesaving measures, science has expanded its knowledge of death. In order to save people’s lives and brains, scientists have had to study the processes that occur in the brain after death. Today, many millions of people of all ages and cultures, ranging from atheists to devout believers, have gone beyond the traditional threshold of death and come back to recount their experiences. They describe feeling immense peace, seeing visions of a bright warm welcoming light and deceased relatives, entering a beautiful place, and comprehending conversations and events that had been taking place in the room in which their body lay dead. Most are positively transformed by their experiences; they become more altruistic and no longer fear death.

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