Monday, January 07, 2013

Death & Life After Death

Green Lake Conference Center, Wisconsin

Notes from "Death and the Afterlife," by Chad Meister (in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 27, pp. 294 ff.)

Meister's essay is a nice summary of the major philosophical views of life after death. Here's a summary of Meister's summary.

We're all confronted with our own mortality. One day, I will die. You will too. What happens after that, if anything? Your answer depends on your worldview. If also depends on your answer to the question: What is a person? Re. this, the four central views among philosophers are: substance dualism, materialism, monistic pantheism, and the Buddhist understanding of anatman.


Substance dualism

Most Western philosophers have held to some form of substance dualism, to include Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, and Kant. Descartes may be the most famous and influential. His "cogito," "I think, therefore I am," implies that the essence of a person is to be a "thinking thing." The mind or soul is res cogitans, with the body being res extensa; viz., mind and body are two entirely different substances. The soul is an unextended, non-spatial, non-physical substance. The body is an extended, spatial, physical substance.

A main problem Cartesian substance dualism faces is: how can the immaterial soul exert an influence on the material body? "Theistic dualists often reply that if God (an immaterial reality) can interact with matter, then it is not inconceivable that immaterial souls could do so as well." (Meister, 295)

Most dualists affirm life after death. "If human persons are constituted by body and soul, then the notion of continued existence after the death of the physical body is at least a philosophical possibility, since the soul could, theoretically, continue to exist after the death and decay of the body." (Ib., 296)

See also, e.g., the work of theistic philosopher J.P. Moreland, who is a substance dualist.


Materialism is "the view that the self, the essence of the individual human person, is fully material and includes no immaterial aspect... There is, materialists argue, good reason to believe that human persons are nothing more than the matter of which they are constituted." (Ib., 297)

Most materialists do not believe there is survival after death. "Once the physical body (or at least the brain or central nervous system) dies, the individual perishes forever." (Ib., 298)

Meister goes into some detail explaining various kinds of materialism such as, for example, type-type identity theory, where "mental states and processes are identical to physical brain states and processes. On this view the mind just is the physical brain.

Monistic pantheism

Hindu philosophers hold to monistic pantheism (whereas few Western philosophers do). Meister writes:

"According to this school, ultimate reality is infinite, undifferentiated, conscious bliss. This reality is referred to as 'Brahman' and is understood to be the only reality. It is ultimately non-dual, and all appearances, including the physical universe, are illusion or maya (an illusory aspect in which apparent differentiation and individuality emanate from Brahman). Individual selfhood is also part of the illusion, and the true self, or Atman, is in reality identical to Brahman." (Ib., 298)

So after death, then what? The loss of personal existence and becoming "undifferentiated Brahman." There is no individual existence in Brahman. "Rather, [after death] it is full union with or absorption into Brahman." (Ib., 299)


The Buddhist doctrine of anatman is that "there are no individual substances - neither material nor immaterial ones." (Ib.) Therefore, "there is no fundamentally real individual self. Such a view is illusory, Buddhists maintain." (Ib.)

After death, then what? Meister writes: "On most Buddhist accounts there is survival of a certain sort, but not a continuation of a substantial individual self in an afterlife."

We have, then, four major philosophical view of life after death.

  1. Substance dualism - it is conceivable for the immaterial soul to survive death, either in a disembodied or an embodied state.
  2. Materialism - life after death is unlikely.
  3. Monistic pantheism - survival is possible, but not as an undifferentiated, individual self.
  4. Anatman - the individuated self is an illusion; there is no personal existence in either this life or the next.
Support for Life after Death

One kind of support for life after death is on the evidence of near-death experiences (NDEs). Meister elaborates and cites examples. More recently, see Harvard neurosurgeon Eben Alexander's testimony - here, and here

Another type of evidence is "that some persons have actually come back to life after being dead for an extended period of  time (beyond what are understood to be 'near-death' experiences)." (Ib., 301) See, e.g., Craig Keener's recent Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.

More specifically, some have argued, on the basis of historical evidence, for the physical resurrection of Jesus. See N.T. Wright, William Lane Craig, et. al. 

Objections to the plausibility of life after death

"One of the central arguments against immortality relates to the claim that the existence of a brain is necessary for consciousness, that each person's brain is necessary for his consciousness, and since a person's brain will die and decay at some point in time, he cannot be immortal." (Ib., 303)

Another argument against personal existence after death is this. Since we cannot perceive a soul, we always identify a person by their body. If disembodied souls exist, in what sense could we refer to these souls as persons? "Identifying someone, both synchronically and diachronically, seems to entail the identification of a person's physical body." (Ib.)

Meister's essay is helpful in identifying the options. As for me, since I affirm a form of dualism, hold to the historical reality of the resurrection of Christ, and find materialism philosophically problematic, I believe in life after death.