Is There Life After Death? Essays & Opinions
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Kevin Timpe

The Logical Possibility of an Afterlife

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.

Second, the kind of life after death that is typically at issue in questions of this sort is not merely the kind of life that occurs as the result of a medical resuscitation. As amazing as such resuscitations are—particularly for those who experience them—something more than that is presumably at issue. So at the very least, it seems that people interested in the answer to the question “Is there life after death?” are asking if, for at least some individuals who experience physical death, those very people live after death in a way that involves a life other than resuscitation? A natural way that some of the world’s religions have understood life after death to be different from mere resuscitation is that the former is to be an unending life involving immortality.

So far as I know, there is no empirical evidence that definitively settles this question, despite some recent headlines that might suggest otherwise. In fact, I am inclined to believe that empirical evidence is very unlikely to ever settle this question. (Of course, if in the near future some living individual that I have good reason to believe is identical with someone who has died in the past visits me, I will gladly reconsider this claim.)

If the question isn’t likely to be settled by empirical investigation, given the nature of the issue one might naturally turn toward either philosophy or religion in order to settle the issue. If, for example, either Christianity or Islam or certain forms of Judaism or Hinduism is true, then insofar as these religions claim that there is life after death involving either resurrection or reincarnation, then there is life after death. But of course, demonstrating which religion (if any) is the correct religion—and thus has the correct account of life after death—is no small feat.

Can philosophy contribute an answer to our question? Throughout history, philosophers (one thinks of Plato) have tried to show that there is life after death. Or perhaps philosophy might try to show which religion (again, if any) is true, as other philosophers have attempted. Unfortunately, I don’t think that philosophy has been successful in either of these endeavors. Perhaps a more productive line of reasoning could use philosophical argumentation to show not that there is life after death, but that there could be life after death.                                       

So, could there be life after death? What can philosophy say about this question? Philosophers might argue (and have) that life after death would be miraculous. If philosophy could show that miracles are impossible, or at least so unlikely that no one should believe in them, then that would be a reason to believe that there is no life after death. On the other hand, if philosophical argumentation could show that there is no logical contradiction in a once living but now dead thing being brought back to life in the relevant sense—and since what is not a logical contradiction is at least logically possible—then philosophy again could contribute to such an answer.

Some readers will likely, at this point, be unsatisfied. Insofar as everything that does not involve a logical contradiction is logically possible, there is a sense in which logical possibility comes cheaply. Flying pink unicorns with magical blood are, after all, logically possible. So many will find the mere logical possibility of life after death to provide little comfort or interest.

Fortunately, I think that philosophy still has the resources to contribute to the question whether life after death is more than a mere logical possibility. Philosophy has resources to determine whether there is any positive reason to believe life after death might exist. If, for example, there are reasons in favor of believing in a religion that asserts that there are miracles, then these same considerations will also be reasons (though likely not decisive ones) for believing in the possibility of life after death. And if we have reasons for thinking that a divine being exists, values relationship with us, and can accomplish eternal relationship with us via life after death, then again we have some reason to think that there may be life after death.

These reasons are, of course, defeasible; that is, they may be overridden by other reasons that we also have. Here is where the sub-discipline of epistemology will be most relevant. Roughly and quickly put, epistemology is the field of philosophy that deals with issues related to the nature of knowledge, the sources of knowledge, as well as the evidence we have for accepting various beliefs. So epistemology can help us figure out how to balance conflicting sets of reasons in this and other cases.

I don’t think that the original question is easily settled, even with the use of philosophical reasoning. But that is true, I think, of just about every meaningful question of human existence. Life is complicated, and often the best we can do is try to weigh all the competing reasons we have and be willing to revise our beliefs in the light of potential further evidence. 

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