Recently a friend of mine posed an interesting question. She said that none of us really know for sure if there is life after death or not, although all of us have our own beliefs. She wondered how differently we would live our lives if we could have conclusive proof either way. This led to an interesting discussion about what would constitute proof in such situations.
This brings us back to the whole problem of what constitutes proof in such cases. The negative is particularly tricky. As far as I can see, to prove that life after death does not exist, the only thing we can have is the absence of proof that life after death does exist. I cannot see how there could be any other kind of proof for such a thing and would be genuinely interested in hearing from anyone (especially from those who do believe in the afterlife) what kind of evidence would convince them beyond a shadow of a doubt that no afterlife existed.
As far as I can tell, the very fact that there has been no convincing proof for thousands of years that life exists after death is all the proof we are ever going to have that it does not exist. So in my opinion, having convincing proof that there is no life after death would not change people’s behavior much, since that is pretty much the state of affairs that currently exists. People may say that they believe in it but they really have no basis for believing it and I suspect that its absence would not, deep down, really surprise them. It is only having convincing proof that the afterlife does exist that would change anything dramatically.
Notice that I say ‘convincing’ proof. There are people who claim to have had near-death experiences where they saw something of the after life. Others claim to talk to or even see dead people. But none of these things really constitute proof because they are all individual reports in the absence of corroborating witnesses. There is a whole range of completely natural explanations that can explain the testimonies of such people, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.
A real proof of the existence of the afterlife would have to consist of something incontrovertible, that simply could not be denied. If asked to be more specific, I would say that it would have to consist (say) of an event in which someone who was well known and whom we know was definitely dead (say Albert Einstein) appeared in public and spoke to a large number of people who had no vested interest in collectively lying. There would also have to be tangible evidence of the event occurring. Furthermore, to rule out any chance of fraud or misunderstanding, this dead person should promise to reappear at a designated time and place under conditions that rule out trickery so that any and all skeptics could be on hand to check the phenomenon out. Albert should also be able to bring along other well known people from the world beyond, like say Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If something like that happened, I think everyone would be convinced.
We have never had anything even close to such a level of proof. So basically, the current state of affairs is such that there has been no convincing proof of the existence of an afterlife. That means that we have all the proof we can possibly get that there is no afterlife.
The only way that people can sustain a belief in the afterlife given the current absence of any evidence in its favor is to argue that there must be an impenetrable barrier that prevents any kind of communication at all between the afterlife world and this one, with no exceptions. In other words, there is a one-time opening between the two worlds that allows the souls or spirits of dead people to cross over but the door closes immediately afterwards preventing any return or communication. But this implies that everyone who claims to speak with the dead is either a fraud or delusional and that all the supposed encounters that people claim to have had with the dead are false. So we are back to having zero evidence for the existence of an afterlife.
If we want to believe at least some of the reports of dead people having communicated with the living, then we have to allow just some people to be able to speak to just a few of the dead. That means the barrier separating the two worlds can be crossed and this raises a whole host of problems. Why is it that the dead don’t contact us more often? Why doesn’t Thomas Jefferson drop by for regular chats and maybe give the current occupant of the White House some desperately needed advice on what the US Constitution says? Why don’t all murdered people whose deaths were unsolved come back and tell us who their killers were?
In fact, believing in an afterlife is much harder than believing in a god. After all, with god, one is presumably dealing with a single entity. People always have the option of assigning inscrutability to god’s actions and say that for reasons beyond our ken, god has chosen to keep his/her existence unproven except for highly oblique hints.
But with the afterlife, if it exists, there must be billions of dead souls out there. It is hard to argue that all of them are determined to prevent us from finding out for sure that they exist. Why would they care? Is it a crime in that world for someone to show themselves openly in our world? Is this other world like a prison in which just a few dead people are given permission to occasionally speak to a few living people under extremely controlled circumstances?
Given the overwhelming logical difficulties with postulating the existence of such a spirit world, one wonders why people continue to believe in it. One reason that I can think of is that people have a deep sense of existential loneliness that makes it comforting to think that they are surrounded by the spirits of dead friends and family and that they will join them in the future. It is such a deep psychological need that it overcomes all reason and logic.
POST SCRIPT: Citizen Kane
The classic film Citizen Kane will be screened on Tuesday, March 20 at 7:15pm in Strosacker Auditorium at Case Western Reserve University. It is free and open to the public. (Thanks to Heidi for the info.)
Allen Katzoff says
If you are truly open-minded about this subject and interested in digging into the data, one avenue for exploration is near-death experiences (NDEs).
During the past 30 years, NDEs have been the focus of many scientific studies at universities and medical centers throughout the U.S. and around the world. You can read about them on the website of the International Association for Near-Death Studies at http://www.iands.org. In particular, you might want to check under the Research tab for published papers outlining new findings from the most current research, particularly the two written by Dr. Peter Fenwick and Dr. Pim Van Lommel. Many medical professionals who have seriously studied the research – and it is extensive – no longer dismiss this phenomenon as hallucinations or pharmacologically induced.
Last fall I attended a 4 day conference on NDEs at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston that reviewed in detail 30 years of research on NDEs. DVDs of the presentations can be ordered on the website above. In particular, the presentation by Dr. Bruce Greyson, a psychiatric researcher at the University of Virginia, specifically deals with possible explanatory models for NDEs. His conclusions, based on the research data, is consistent with what I stated above.
Mano Singham says
Thanks for the information and the link. I looked it up and it was quite interesting.
My point is that evidence for the afterlife (things like the NDE links you provided and other paranormal phenomena) are always on the edges of plausibility and as long as they stay in that grey area where so many doubts can be raised, they will not be accepted as convincing evidence. Believers will believe them but skeptics won’t.
This is why we need convincing evidence either way. I have outlined what that would need to look like for a skeptic like me to be convinced of the existence of an afterlife. What evidence would it take for a believer to be convinced of the opposite?
Do you think the same reasoning applies to extraterrestrials? Basically, there’s no credible evidence of anyone meeting an extraterrestrial being, and if they do exist, one of them would’ve contacted us by now. Because we have no credible evidence of it, that is sufficient evidence that they don’t exist, and man is the only intelligent life in the universe.
I’m kind-of out to lunch on this: it seems like a similar argument, and I’ve always been loathe to say “I can’t concieve of a reason why there’s no evidence of this, therefore it must not exist.” I may, in fact, be a closet conspiracy theorist (next, at 11: government run by giant space lizards).
Mano Singham says
Actually, I will be posting about the extraterrestrials situation tomorrow. Good timing for your question!
I tend to think that lack of belief in the afterlife is more fundamental to atheism than lack of belief in a God. I think I would have become an atheist a lot sooner if it weren’t for my emotional aversion to non-existence (which has really gone away after a years of thinking about it). Also, while a lot of people think it’s fun to talk about arguments for an against the existence of gods regardless of their beliefs, I’ve seen reasonable people reduced to tears with just a few good points raised about the lack of an afterlife. It seems like theism of any kind is based on two strong emotional ideas: 1) I’ll never really lose anything or anyone 2) The world is inevitably fair. And if they can’t have 2, they’ll still cling to 1.
I used to think that it’s not a big deal if people have incorrect beliefs if they have negligible effects on their actions. But the afterlife thing seems very important, since I can’t imagine how people wouldn’t act differently if they didn’t think they had forever to accomplish the things they wanted to do.
Mano Singham says
You make an interesting point, that people are more invested in an afterlife than even in god. I had not thought of that.
I find it strange, though, that people think that in the afterlife they will be with the people they like. They seem to think that they can dictate the terms of that existence. They don’t seem to consider the possibility that the people they like here may not be accessible there, or that the people they hated or really annoying people will also be there.
I wonder what they would think about spending eternity in the company of a real obnoxious pest.
Jason Bedunah says
I recently read an interesting book near this subject called “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. Very interesting. You can imagine how different the Tibetan Buddhist lifestyle is from the average wester life, yet I found the ideas and thoughts extremely practical. It’s worth a skim through if you see it at the bookstore.
~ Jason ~
I wonder what they would think about spending eternity in the company of a real obnoxious pest.
Ever read No Exit? 🙂
Mano Singham says
I’d never heard of this play. It sounds fascinating. I wish I could see a production.
I have so many mixed feelings about what I believe in, I am only 16, and just lastnite I had a long conversation with my friend about the afterlife, and he believes there is no afterlife, I have strongly considered this too after what he told me. The only thing that I keep reminding myself is, if there is no afterlife…then what is our purpose? What was the purpose of EVERYTHING..planets..the universe? He told me that an experiment was done to prove that Matter can be created from “nothing.” I didn’t do much research about it yet, was it the big bang experiment that NASA tested? Well if anyone knows anything about that..if you can find me a good link to it or explain it that’d be cool. So if Matter really could be created from “nothing” then that proves the possibility that we may not have a purpose, and the whole universe being formed was maybe just a series of random events.
Also, what V said about extraterrestrial being’s…In my mind, I am 110% sure there are extraterrestrial being’s because of one fact. When the big bang happened, the component to life was in that small little ball before it exploded, so if the universe is so huge…what are the chances that that component to life only ended up on this ONE planet which may I add, is smaller than most..?
Mano Singham says
These are issues that each person must resolve for himself or herself. The questions you raise about the origins of the universe are ones for which we do not yet have enough evidence to make firm conclusions. Learning to live with that state of uncertainty is not easy but necessary.
As for meaning, it is good to bear in mind that we are not owed a meaning for the universe. There is nothing to say that some meaning external to us must exist. But we can and shold make our lives meaningful, although each of us will choose a different path.
Jim Dudones says
There are no experiments where matter (or energy) was created from nothing. I can assure you that your friend is mistaken.
Also, there are no experiments where life is created from nonliving matter. Not one single documented piece of evidence. This I can assure you as well.
The issues you wrestle with are incredibly important from my point of view as a Christian. The arguments matter to me and I hope they will matter to you as well. I agree with Mano that learning to live with uncertaintly is not easy but necessary at times-everyone has their moments. But he and I completely disagree on meaning. There is more than relativistic meaning out there. From an atheist point of view I am afraid that is all there is (relativistic meaning). You are a cosmic accident for better or for worse. The meaning of life will be nothing more or less than what you make it. This issue you wrestle with has little importance.
From a theistic point of view there is rich meaning and you matter a great deal. You have great intrinsic and extrinsic value and there is a purpose to fufill. This is not my blog so I don’t want to go any further but this quest for truth you are on matters to me. I would encourage you to read the book of John in the Bible (it will take about ~3 or 4 days at the most-you have nothing to lose). You can balance that out by reading Mano’s 7 part series trying to show that the Bible is junk and then decide for yourself.
Mano Singham says
Your assumption that the theistic viewpoint removes the relativistic element isn’t really supported by the evidence. It would imply that all people who believe in a god have the same unique meaning for life. If this is so, what is this unique meaning?
In reality, every religion is different and even every person within each religion creates their own meaning. They then pick those elements of those religions that support their own private meaning and claim that it is the “real, god-given” meaning of life.
Jim Dudones says
Mano and Jake,
Ah but if I am right that there is one God and that there is an afterlife then there is only one objective reality in the end. We may experience reality differently. We may have different understandings of it (each has their own meaning as you say). It may be inconsequential in many respects (you like vegatable but I prefer fish) but in the end reality is reality. It matter most in the end (if it matters at all-your viewpoint only and not mine) and this is what I was trying to get across to Jake.
Mano Singham says
I am not sure why god is tied to a unique objective reality. You can believe in an objective reality without god.
If god provides a unique meaning to life, what is that meaning and do all believers in god ascribe the same meaning to life??
Your suggested proof of an afterlife (Einstein etc) makes the assumption that those in the afterlife have the ability to ‘appear’ and address people verbally in the current life.
There is no reason to assume that people in an afterlife have a ‘form’ through which they could do any of these things.
What was Albert Einstein beyond a complex combination of molecules? What is Albert Einstein now beyond a different combination of those molecules?
Maybe there is no life/afterlife divide beyond the semantics of what we class as ‘life’.
Good heavens Sir, ,in philosophy we always start from the beginning. The beginning of any dialectic or argument involves defining your terms. There are some assumptions built in to your afterlife question that require reflection. The first one is that the individual human being really exists in some sort of solid objective way in a unchanging state even before death. The old problem dealt with 2500 years ago by Shakyamuni Buddha, it is the doctrine of Anahatma no enduring perpetual soul.
This philosophical tradition dispenses with the whole argument. If the individual self is an illusion and so is life versus afterlife and illusion. If you were to wander into one of my Zen centers and introduce yourself, and told me that you were a scientist, and a skeptic, the first question I would ask you is who is this Mano Singham. You would perhaps give me your life’s history. I would then say Manoji are you the same person you were when you’re six years old? Are you your Body? Surely every cell in your body has been replaced since you were six Are you then your memories, well I bet you can’t tell me what you had for breakfast when you were six years old or describe all your classmates. Your certainly not your thoughts and emotions, those can change an instance. Then who are yo?. Most people are their ideas about themselves, are those objective realities?
If self itself is a construct then what happens to the whole question you posit?
I think not that’s why we have a discipline called psychology, because most people’s view of themselves is colored by a series of opinions starting off with their parents, and then there are opinions about their parents opinions about their opinions, about someone else’s opinions, merged together with worldviews that are all based on theories and opinions. If I were to ask you to bring forward your self as six years old could you do it? That to me would be the only convincing truth, no different than your argument is it?
There is an old Zen saying if you wish to know the truth and cease to cherish her own opinion, and another that says don’t slander the sky by looking through a pipe.
The question really needs to be framed in the context of is consciousness located in the body and is a result of the bodies functioning, or more precisely a function of the brain. That’s what you’re really saying I think. The Problem with that evidence wise lies in the huge body of Para psychological work if only one instance is not fraud or random chance, there goes that reductionist argument. We cant go on common sense, common sense tells us the Sun revolves around the Earth.
Now you will tell me Mano Ji, that no such evidence exists, that is the “skeptic’s” position. Or more precisely I should say that he is the mechanical reductionist apologists position. But Paul Kurtz, Carl Sagan and all that bunch are not skeptics at all, for they are only skeptical about phenomena that could exist outside their own paradigm and not about that which exists within it. Almost all skeptics except the Big Bang theory cosmology, yet it’s been a hundred years and no one has produced the dark matter, only countless theories about it like layers of an onion
You know the plasma physicists argument with it, and the solid state model..
Scientific progress is harmed more by scientific dogma that it is by religion,(that argument is like driving your car and dodging a mouse and hitting a Moose) because the dogmatists which all be skeptics are these days distorts science from a process, a method into a position. The fanaticism shown by the skeptical organizations is so venal, virile and lacking in intellectual honesty, one has to immediately discard any opinion coming from them about any paranormal or so-called paranormal phenomena.
Of course that which is paranormal is only paranormal until someone finds a process that explains it, surely quantum physics would have been considered paranormal prior to Copenhagen Theory of Quantum Physics. Skeptics today have a belief and a dogma we may best call Scientism, for lack of a better word. It believes that it has just about got the world explained through his current theories and paradigms and anything that might counter that or even explore an alternative meaning is heresy and must be stamped out
From my view Life is a process which at some point no longer holds itself together for an individual and terminates in death of the individual, however one can argue the individual is part of a greater stream of interconnectedness that is eternal, and the separation was illusion in the first place We call this the doctrine of interdependent origination. It amazes me that following breakthroughs in understanding that quantum physics has made we still think biology and life is still nothing more than a bunch of atoms bumping together with one another, with the part having no real connection to the whole. If an electron can ne anywhere in the orbit of that atom and at no pbe more than what it appears at its most gross level of understanding at the macro level.
Whoever there is no convincing a Skeptic a skeptic is no more rational than any true believer, particularly when one’s reputation and career is contingent upon holding to that paradigm at all costs. And who is a skeptic to say you must convince me anyway. The whole question itself goes back to the question of Careers Peer tolerance, and sometimes pathological neuroses, I find narcissism is almost always attendant with those that call themselves Skeptics, I preferred to remain skeptical myself, but I neither have to except a particular religious doctrine or the doctrine of reductionist Scientism.
I am not saying that you are one of these folks but you are certainly have been influenced by them. They are anathema to scientific breakthrough. I’ve been trained to study man’s minds, and almost all of these individuals that I’ve come across who were not technically scientists who belong to CSICop suffer from, narcissism, and ego inflation. The three have created a small tribe that feel they are intellectually superior to others because of their belief system. This is every bit as dangerous to their own personalities and to society as a religious cult would be.
Yes I have heard all the neurological arguments by such people as a Churchlands at the University of California San Diego, and the grandiose statements about how much they know about the brain none of which stand up to close scrutiny. Look at label on an anti depressant some time to see the real e realty of our knowledge. Knowledge of the functioning of a television, being able to manipulate the vertical ,sound horizontal does not mean nobody is broadcasting.
Once again only takes one single instance of paranormal activity proven to completely destroy the mind is the brain argument. By the way the most convincing case for continuity of consciousness is DR Ian Stephenson’s work overall, but particularly, his work on birthmarks corresponding to postmortem wounds of self-described reincarnated people. I suspect will not be convincing to you anymore than an argument to a born-again Christian that the Bible can’t be literally be historically true since it contradicts itself I some passages, would be to them. I just ask that skeptic stop pretending they are open minded and confess like Lord Russell once did that even if he witnessed a Miracle he would not accept it.
So I am going to be Narcissist and arrogant and demand that Skeptics refute in every detail(following my ONLY ONCE Rule) all the literature and evidence as such on the paranormal, such as Stevenson work, the University of Arizona psychic study ,point by point statistically. No I will not accept some polemic for Prometheus books. We know skeptic have cheated and manipulated repeatedly so their word alone will not be sufficient. As for Occams razor they should use that tool a to shave the beard of their own pretensions.
alan granville says
You ask for “proof”. Take a hypothetical case of a man standing over the body of a dead man who has a single bullet in his head that came from that same gun. There is no one else in the street and death threats were made an hour ago. Now that isn’t proof but it’s extremly strong evidence isn’t it?
Of all the cases of n.d.e, medium communication, i t c, and so on only one case has to be true for the case to be proved-they can’t all be frauds or delusional especially when you think of the calibre of people involved ie crookes, hamilton,schwartz,fenwick,senkowski.
read victor zammit if you havn’t already
regards alan granville
To the believer , no proof is necessary
To the non believer , no proof is enough
I don’t think the symmetry quite holds. It is easy for unbelievers to specify the kinds of evidence that would convert them into believers, and even I have done so.
But what kind of evidence would convert a believer into an unbeliever? I can never get an answer to this question.
Doc Smith says
First of all its good to see an interesting discussion of this.
I think you are right in saying that proof is difficult, to say the least. I do consider myself a Christian, though i dont belong to a particular club. So that being said, i must point out that your exact proof was given a long time ago. Jesus was tortured in public and crucified, and must have decided that your method of proof was necessary, so he came back from the dead. He also insisted that people that knew him examine his body.
Now i know some are thinking that was all a fairy tale. Through my own research, i believe it is true.
But enough of that. I just thought you should know the irony of your “proof” was already given.
As far as believing, thats a difficult question in its own respect. Can one believe the Bible?
Can one believe anything? Some people believe everything the doctor says, others do not.
Usually people believe things, if they are accepted by a respected authority. If we see that there is scientific proof of an afterlife on television news, many will accept it as truth. But is it? So then it comes down to personal experience, but there are many times such as hallucination, when we cannot believe our senses either. So there you have it, we cant believe anything to be 100% true, even if we experience it ourselves.
There are however many clues to things for those that wish to observe them. And observing clues, is an accepted scientific tool.
So i will start with one clue, not proof, but observation, and if you like i can continue.
We use the word “instinct”. I am a dog owner, and its interesting how many things are instinctive in my dog. We adopted him when he was only weeks old, yet there have been many things programmed into him.
One that other pet owners will relate to, is the disgusting habit of coming upon a dead animal, and immediately like lightning, roll in the animal making himself a stinking mess.
What does all this have to do with the afterlife ?
O.K. Clue #1.
It is the natural instinct, of aprox 98% of all humans, from all ages, from all societies, from mans earliest days, to believe in the afterlife.
Now think for a moment of our world, no matter what race, the VAST majority “feel” there is an afterlife. Not only now, but from the begining of time!
Is this just some need we have being expressed? Calming our own fears ? Then why concepts like hell, eternal punishment etc. Certainly, that doesnt make us feel better.
Now as i said before, there is no proof, only clues, and one cant really believe anything as proof by authority. That all said,
I propose that in the case “for” afterlife, there is what appears to be a common, built in, almost instinctive belief that there is an afterlife, in the VAST majority of every human being that has ever lived. If not Strong Proof, certainly, strong suggestion.
but wait there is more…..
Bonnie Long says
I would offer an updated version of Luke 16:31 :
“They would not believe, even if someone returned from the dead…not even if that someone were Albert Einstein.”
Einstein would agree with this, by the way.
“We” don’t “need” anything. There is and there never will be any “proof”. Get over it and live your lives, which are disappearing through the hourglass of time even as we type.
Turn away from all such useless and sterile obsessions, and do whatever you can to make this a better world for the weak and the small.
As a person with a history of NDE’s and OBEs, I can state that I am absolutely convinced that I was outside of my body and saw my body in its veridical, physical setting on at least three different occasions. I need no proof of that. And I have seen a lot more very amazing and mysterious things. But as for the rest, I leave it to God. And I am not afraid.
Bon voyage --as we all find our way Home.
when life exists for one time then what is the reason that it wont exisit for second, third…..infinite times. It is true that we all are on earth for one time -- there is no doubt in it, it means when are able to exist for one time on earth (or any other planet for that matter) then why not we can appear again and again. What is the problem.
Sure, we can believe in an infinite number of lives, just as we can believe in anything we like. We can never prove that something does NOT exist. The key question is whether we have any credible evidence for the things we believe do exist.
“We can never prove that something does NOT exist. The key question is whether we have any credible evidence for the things we believe do exist.”
No such key question need be asked. Being the case that we can never prove something doesn’t exist… what does it matter if we have in/credible evidence?
Right…Science only deals with the observable 🙂
On a side note, I find it odd that scientific minds searched for hundreds and hundreds of years after the atom was first hypothesized, without any solid proof yet it’s too much for most skeptical and/or scientific minds to accept that people believe what they do. So why is it different for religion/religious beliefs? Is it any more silly to believe in God, afterlife etc before proof than it was to beleive that all things are made of really,really tiny things floating around as the vast soup of existence? Whats more fire (and then later electricity) was discovered before even there was credible evidence that atoms existed.
My point is, we don’t need proof of our various non/spiritual beleifs first before we utilize them in our lives, any more than we needed to worry about proof of lungs before we breathed our first breath.
I must say, I have had (and still do from time to time) trouble with religion and religious people. But… and I forget who said this… if God did not exist, then it would not have been long before humans invented him. And this has indeed been proven, and in recent times to boot: Did a godless state called the USSR do better or worse than the rest of the crazy world with it’s baseless beliefs?
Hmmm… Anyway, for those who need proof of this and/or that…
I think all the proof we need is here: Human minds do not operate exclusively on proof, nor do they need to. Nor do I think they ever can.
I mean, think about how restrictive such a requirement would be on one’s actions and one’s life. I can easily imagine that that would bring all things to a screeching halt, because we don’t know everything and never will know everything.
we have not existed for billions of years then we exist for a short amount of time, 70 to 90 years, and then we do not exist anynore…….we don’t remember not existing and we will not remember living…….it is a huge mystery
One question always remains with me. If one beleaves there is an afterlife, it would only be nature to tell all thier friends, and to help comfort others. If one does not beleave in an after life, it would be natural, to move on about ones business not concerned with such matters. My problum or question is Why when someone does not beleave do they spend time convencing other people to not beleave? Or is it that they dont beleave and would like to fail at convinceing others in the hopes that it would in some how help them beleave?
I’ve been having a lot of trouble finding out if an Afterlife exists. I’ve found two books that use scientific method to show evidence of the afterlife. You may or may not have heard of them, but the first one is “The Scole Experiment”, by Grant Solomon, and the other book, was “The Afterlife Experiements”, by Gary Schwartz. Each of these books are fascinating, and for the Scole Experiment, no skeptic has been able to rebut the evidence found here, and what’s especially fascinating about the scole experiement, is the physical evidence that was found, people were able to see, touch, and hear this evidence.
Even many stage magicians were brought in to see if they could replicate the events that happened in this book, and every person said it was impossible.
I highly suggest you looking at these books, and your opinions may change, or they may not.
The book by Gary Swchartz deals with Mediumship, but he does it in the way of preventing fraud, like Cold reading, by using double blind methods and many other practices.
Hopefully this information will help.