The Afterlife: A Philosophical Perspective
A Rational Approach to the Afterlife
What happens to us when we die? Will we live on in an afterlife? Will our molecules return to the great cosmic flux to form new life? Will our souls be inserted into new bodies preserving our personality in a new form? People everywhere have attempted to answer this question. Most of the answers are religious and require faith. Is there anything that can be said about the afterlife from a philosophical perspective?
The philosophical perspective entails looking at things through the lens of human reason. In philosophy, it is rational justification that counts. Something that needs to be taken on faith will be excluded from consideration through a philosophical perspective. The afterlife is by definition a life after death in a world that transcends this material world that we live in. There is no way to verify the existence of such a realm. Nor is there any way to say what it is like, what its nature is. Any access to the afterlife is through supernatural means and not open to everyone for rational verification. So there is not much that one can say about the afterlife from a philosophical perspective.
Philosophy also has little to say about what the afterlife is like. Is there a heaven and hell? Do people receive punishments and rewards? Do souls return to this world in new bodies? There is no way to say whether these claims are true. One cannot make an independent verification of these beliefs.
The best philosophy can do is to examine claims about the afterlife for logical consistency. We can exclude any claims about the afterlife that imply contradictions. This is the minimum standard that any claims about the afterlife must meet to be acceptable. But there may be multiples set of logically consistent claims about the afterlife. There is no way to adjudicate these multiple claims.
- Afterlife (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Heaven and Hell (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
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Plato on the Afterlife
Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, has some important arguments that are relevant to the afterlife. The world that we live in is incomplete - it is in a constant state of flux. There is no source of stability in the material world. Plato argues that the conditions of this world seem to require a higher spiritual realm. The beings of this higher realm will be stable and unchanging. The spiritual world provides the stability that this world lacks. These stable entities are what Plato refers to as ideas or forms. So for example, there are many beautiful things in this world. But these beautiful things change and sometimes loss their beauty. But beauty itself does not change. Beauty itself must be something beyond this material world. It is what makes all the beautiful things in this world beautiful. Plato argues that beauty itself is a spiritual entity that dwells in a transcendent realm. The soul, according to Plato, is akin to the forms. It is the spiritual part of the human being and is attuned to this higher spiritual realm. Because of its inherent stability and participation in the higher spiritual realm, the human soul is immortal. But much beyond this, philosophy cannot go.
The argument which Plato offers is known as a transcendental argument. These kinds of argument were made popular by Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century but have been employed throughout the history of philosophy in order stretch thinking beyond the empirical facts of the matter. The transcendental argumentation is based on showing that something transcendent is the condition of possibility for the things that we experience. Plato suggests that our experience of stable features in this world is only possible if they participate in the ideal forms which dwell in a spiritual heavenly realm. The existence of a spiritual realm is the condition of possibility for our stable and certain knowledge of this world. We do have stable and certain knowledge of this world so there must be a spiritual world to make this knowledge possible. So philosophy can examine the conditions in this world and make a logical jump to show the existence of a higher spiritual realm. But this does not help us to characterize this realm or say much of anything about its nature. We cannot identify this spiritual realm with the Christian vision of heaven and hell without a divine revelation accepted on faith.
Potential Evidence for the Afterlife
Recently people have claimed that there is empirical evidence for the afterlife. They use psychics that claim to communicate with the dead and reports of near-death experiences to show that some people have an experience of the afterlife. If we could somehow prove that the only possible explanation for these experiences is the existence of higher spiritual realm then this would amount to the same kind of transcendental argument that Plato constructed.
This is easier said than done. First, look at the psychics. Assume that a few are not frauds and actually do experience some kind of mysterious communications. There might be multiple explanations for such communications. There is no way to track the sources of these communications to a dead person or ghost. Maybe these psychic individuals have some unknown super-perception which yields this knowledge. They experience it as a communication from beyond but really its genesis is from within the deep recesses of their own consciousness. There is no way to verify that these communications are authentic communications from a dead person.
The same can be said of near-death experiences. Despite that there is a striking similarity between these experiences, there is no way for those of us who have not had such an experience to verify the truth of these accounts. There could be alternate explanations. Maybe our brains are hardwired to have such experiences under the conditions of near-death. Some researchers suspect that these experiences are culturally determined. We experience what our culture tells us that we should expect to experience upon death. So there are plenty of alternative explanation for these experiences - we need not conclude that they reflect an actual experience of the afterlife.
What Can a Philosopher Say About the Afterlife?
So what can be said about the afterlife from a philosophical perspective? If we can say very little about the transcendent world, we can say a lot about this world. We may not be about to talk much about the object of belief in the afterlife but we can talk about the actual belief in the afterlife.
One of the key questions that we can focus on is whether or not a belief in the afterlife is needed to motivate good behavior. Do humans need the promise of an eternal reward or the threat of an eternal punishment in order to behave morally? Is there some other belief that might motivate positive behavior? Would a more secular belief help? Maybe a belief that every human person has an innate dignity that cannot be violated. How about a more ecological belief? The "circle of life" suggests that we are all connected in a great circle of life and we have a responsibility to treat the other creatures around us with care. Or is Dostoevsky right to say that "without God, everything is permissible"?
On the one hand, it would seem disappointing that the best motivation for human behavior is based on an eternal carrot and stick. On the other hand, it seems some kind of transcendent being is needed as a proper object of human love. Maybe it is possible to conceive the afterlife in terms of a being that is worthy of our love and not in terms of rewards and punishments. The afterlife may be the place where the human need to love and be loved finds its end in infinite love. This belief will may motivate humans to live from their best lights and not their worst.
Another question might involve hope. Belief in the afterlife provides a sense of hope for life. The idea that life will continue into eternity is a source of hope for many people. The hope of meeting deceased friends and relatives is sustaining to many people. This hope is life-sustaining for many people and the world would be a depressing place without hope.
Philosophy can offer only a very limited perspective on the nature and existence of the afterlife. This is more the realm of theology and religion. Philosophers can reflect on the various dimensions of belief in the afterlife. They can draw conclusions about how this belief matters for life in this world.