Stewart-Williams, Steve


Philosophy with: Life after death by Steve Stewart-Williams

Reincarnation? Disembodied survival? Resurection? Steve Stewart-Williams ponders the possible ways in which he could survive his own death, and decides that he doesn’t have a ghost of a chance.

Human beings are the only animals on earth who understand they will one day die. This tends not to be knowledge they relish. People throughout history have sought eternal life, most recently pinning this hope on science. But more common than the hope that death can be postponed forever is the hope that life will continue after death. The belief in life after death comes in all shapes and sizes. We can distinguish, for instance, between views involving continued existence in a physical body, and those in which survival takes place outside the body. The first category includes reincarnation, and the Judeo-Christian and Islamic doctrine that God will resurrect our bodies at some future time. Survival outside the physical body is variously conceived as survival in a non-physical body (an astral or ghost body), or survival as a disembodied mind. These conceptions of life after death have in common the fact that the individual person survives in some sense. Another belief is in impersonal survival. Some strains of Buddhism, for instance, hold that the individual mind merges back into a universal mind. And contrasting with all these views is the belief that with death we cease to exist in any sense.

The Case for Survival

The question of whether we survive death is one of the big questions of human life. In this article, I explore some of the arguments and evidence for and against survival. I begin with the case for.

Empirical Evidence for Life after Death

Some of the most convincing evidence for life after death comes from the many stories and reports of paranormal phenomena. Among these allegedly paranormal occurrences are out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, ghost sightings, mediums communicating with the dead, and memories of past lives. Such occurrences, if they were what they appear to be, would constitute empirical proof for the belief we survive death (although note that they would not show that we necessarily survive forever). So, how good is the evidence for paranormal phenomena?

Contrary to the impression the popular media sometimes gives, the evidence is not great. Much of it is easily explained in naturalistic terms. For example, although there are no reasonable grounds to doubt that people sometimes have outof- body experiences and near-death experiences, these experiences are plausibly explained in physiological and psychological terms. Similarly, memories of past lives may be false memories, and ghost sightings misinterpretations of ambiguous stimuli. These possibilities do not in themselves prove that supernatural explanations are not called for. Nonetheless, wherever there is a plausible alternative explanation for a piece of evidence, we must at least concede that that evidence cannot justify a strong belief in a supernatural explanation. Moreover, some evidence actively undermines the credibility of paranormal explanations. For instance, mediums have been able to contact people who, unknown to them, were fictional or still alive.

But not all alleged paranormal occurrences can be explained in naturalistic terms. We have all heard stories, for example, of deceased relatives returning and conveying information that could not possibly have been gained in other ways. If such things really happen, non-supernatural explanations would simply not be plausible. It should raise our suspicions, however, that the evidence for such unambiguously paranormal occurrences is almost always poorly corroborated or anecdotal. Anecdotal reports are notoriously unreliable, and when reliable scientific methods are instituted, paranormal phenomena tend mysteriously to vanish. So the situation is this: Where there is good evidence for an occurrence (for example, near-death experiences and out-ofbody experiences), that occurrence can easily be given a naturalistic explanation; where a naturalistic explanation cannot be given for an occurrence, there tends not to be good evidence for that occurrence – suggesting it does not really occur at all. This is precisely the pattern we would expect if there were no reality to paranormal phenomena. In short, there is no good empirical evidence for life after death.

The Conservation of Energy

The search for empirical evidence is not the only attempt to give belief in survival scientific respectability. Some argue that the scientific principle of the conservation of energy supports the idea that the mind survives bodily death. According to this principle, energy never just springs into existence or ceases to exist; it simply changes form. Some argue it follows from this principle that mind or consciousness cannot just go out of existence or disappear at death. An initial criticism of this argument is that the conservation principle applies only to physical energy. Thus, if mind is viewed as non-physical or spiritual energy, there is no reason to think the conservation principle would apply. Furthermore, even if the mind were a form of physical energy, the principle would not guarantee survival. Though energy never ceases to exist nor comes into existence, it does change form. Thus, if the mind is physical energy, it could eventually transform to the point were we could no longer say the original mind still exists.

But perhaps those deploying this argument really have in mind a more general principle than the conservation of physical energy, such as the simple claim that nothing is created and nothing destroyed. This principle has less scientific credibility, but it may be the only way to salvage the argument. Assuming it is true, which is debatable, would it guarantee the survival of the mind? To begin with, the principle would not apply to aggregate entities – things composed of other things. The atoms composing your body, for instance, will continue to exist after your death, but your body will not. Some Buddhist philosophers believed the mind was an aggregate of ‘mental atoms’. If so, the dissolution of the mind would not contradict the premise that nothing is created or destroyed, any more than would the fact that a pattern in the sand ceases to exist when scattered by the wind. The premise would only guarantee survival if we could first establish that a mind is a single, indivisible, and indestructible unit. The evidence does not favour this position. Research and clinical practice in neuropsychology shows that when part of the brain is damaged, part of the mind is damaged. This casts doubt on the possibility that the mind is either indivisible or indestructible.


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