Monday 29 June 2020

The Afterlife: What Do We Imagine?

Posted by Keith Tidman

‘The real question of life after death isn’t whether 
or not it exists, but even if it does, what 
problem this really solves’

— Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921

Our mortality, and how we might transcend it, is one of humanity’s central preoccupations since prehistory. One much-pondered possibility is that of an afterlife. This would potentially serve a variety of purposes: to buttress fraught quests for life’s meaning and purpose; to dull unpleasant visions of what happens to us physically upon death; to switch out fear of the void of nothingness with hope and expectation; and, to the point here, to claim continuity of existence through a mysterious hereafter thought to defy and supplant corporeal mortality.

And so, the afterlife, in one form or another, has continued to garner considerable support to the present. An Ipsos/Reuters poll in 2011 of the populations of twenty-three countries found that a little over half believe in an afterlife, with a wide range of outcomes correlated with how faith-based or secular a country is considered. The Pew Center’s Religious Landscape Study polling found, in 2014, that almost three-fourths of people seem to believe in heaven and more than half said that they believed in hell. The findings cut across most religions. Separately, research has found that some one-third of atheists and agnostics believe in an afterlife — one imagined to include ‘some sort of conscious existence’, as the survey put it. (This was the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, 2014.) 

Other research has corroberated these survey results. Researchers based at Britain's Oxford University in 2011 examined forty related studies conducted over the course of three years by a range of social-science and other specialists (including anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, and theologians) in twenty countries and different cultures. The studies revealed an instinctive predisposition among people to an afterlife — whether of a soul or a spirit or just an aspect of the mind that continues after bodily death.

My aim here is not to exhaustively review all possible variants of an afterlife subscribed to around the world, like reincarnation — an impracticality for the essay. However, many beliefs in a spiritual afterlife, or continuation of consciousness, point to the concept of dualism, entailing a separation of mind and body. As René Descartes explained back in the 17th century:
‘There is a great difference between the mind and the body, inasmuch as the body is by its very nature always divisible, whereas the mind is clearly indivisible. For when I consider the mind, or myself insofar as I am only a thinking thing, I cannot distinguish any parts within myself. . . . By contrast, there is no corporeal or extended thing that I can think of which in my thought I cannot easily divide into parts. . . . This one argument would be enough to show me that the mind is completely different than the body’ (Sixth Meditation, 1641).
However, in the context of modern research, I believe that one may reasonably ask the following: Are the mind and body really two completely different things? Or are the mind and the body indistinct — the mind reducible to the brain, where the brain and mind are integral, inseparable, and necessitating each other? Mounting evidence points to consciousness and the mind as the product of neurophysiological activity. As to what’s going on when people think and experience, many neuroscientists favour the notion that the mind — consciousness and thought — is entirely reducible to brain activity, a concept sometimes variously referred to as physicalism, materialism, or monism. But the idea is that, in short, for every ‘mind state’ there is a corresponding ‘brain state’, a theory for which evidence is growing apace.

The mind and brain are today often considered, therefore, not separate substances. They are viewed as functionally indistinguishable parts of the whole. There seems, consequently, not to be broad conviction in mind-body dualism. Contrary to Cartesian dualism, the brain, from which thought comes, is physically divisible according to hemispheres, regions, and lobes — the brain’s architecture; by extension, the mind is likewise divisible — the mind’s architecture. What happens to the brain physically (from medical or other tangible influences) affects the mind. Consciousness arises from the entirety of the brain. A brain — a consciousness — that remarkably is conscious of itself, demonstrably curious and driven to contemplate its origins, its future, its purpose, and its place in the universe.

The contemporary American neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, has described the dynamics of such consciousness in this manner:
‘It is as if our mind is a bubbling pot of water. . . . The top bubble ultimately bursts into an idea, only to be replaced by more bubbles. The surface is forever energized with activity, endless activity, until the bubbles go to sleep. The arrow of time stitches it all together as each bubble comes up for its moment. Consider that maybe consciousness can be understood only as the brain’s bubbles, each with its own hardware to close the gap, getting its moment’. (The Consciousness Instinct, 2018)
Moreover, an immaterial mind and a material world (such as the brain in the body), as dualism typically frames reality, would be incapable of acting upon each other: what’s been dubbed the ‘interaction problem’. Therefore the physicalist model — strengthened by research in fields like neurophysiology, which quicken to acquire ever-deeper learning — has, arguably, superseded the dualist model.

People’s understanding that, of course, they will die one day, has spurred search for spiritual continuation to earthbound life. Apprehension motivates. The yearn for purpose motivates. People have thus sought evidence, empirical or faith-based or other, to underprop their hope for otherworldly survival. However, modern reality as to the material, naturalistic basis of the mind may prove an injurious blow to notions of an out-of-body afterlife. After all, if we are our bodies and our bodies are us, death must end hope for survival of the mind. As David Hume graphically described our circumstances in Of the Immortality of the Soul (1755), our ‘common dissolution in death’. That some people are nonetheless prone to evoke dualistic spectral spirits — stretching from disembodied consciousness to immortal souls — that provide pretext in desirously thwarting the interruption of life doesn’t change the finality of existence. 

And so, my conclusion is that perhaps we’d be better served to find ingredients for an ‘afterlife’ in what we leave by way of influences, however ordinary and humble, upon others’ welfare. That is, a legacy recollected by those who live on beyond us, in its ideal a benevolent stamp upon the present and the future. This earthbound, palpable notion of what survives us goes to answer Wittgenstein’s challenge we started with, regarding ‘what problem’ an afterlife ‘solves’, for in this sense it solves the riddle of what, realistically, anyone might hope for.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The opening quote by Wittgenstein is crucial. If an afterlife does not solve a problem, it is pointless. I might add, it needs so solve a problem which is not purely material or temporal, or this will ultimately find its death in this world.

I do not think that a blow to Cartesian dualism would represent an 'injurious blow' to notions of an afterlife. Many believe in resurrection as opposed to immortality. Take Nancey Murphy, who argues for 'the Christian view of humans as a unity, not a duality' (NY Academy of Sciences, 11 October 2011). In my experience, that is a stock standard view, though not the only one.

As for leaving 'a benevolent stamp upon the present and the future', this assumes an awful lot about my value. By some accounts, my value is most likely a negative one, whether for the planet, or for those who survive me. They are casting down heroes now, never mind Pi authors.

Keith said...

To your point: “As for leaving ‘a benevolent stamp upon the present and the future,’ this assumes an awful lot about my value. By some accounts, my value is most likely a negative one … for those who survive me.” What, I think, pertains to this observation about one’s value “most likely” being “a negative one” is how we’re morally, and on all practical levels, accountable for our decisions and behaviours. That is, to try, however humbly and tinily that might be, to have a positive impact on family, friends, colleagues, fellow congregants, and community — or, put another way, at the very least not to harm. We sometimes fail at the latter; but humankind surely shouldn’t let that stymie its efforts to improve its lot.

At the core, these are matters of agency and autonomy, steeped in responsibility. It strikes me as a rather despairing going-in position to assume we’re consigned to behaving only negatively toward the people and community with which we daily relate. (Even in the realm of our species’ complex influences upon the environment.) To be clear, though, my point in raising moral accountability has nothing to do with reward/punishment systems in a transcendentally mysterious, doubtfully judgmental afterlife. Rather, it has to do with a secular-humanistic model with regard to values, ethics, choices, decisions, behaviours, beliefs, and norms — albeit entirely bounded in the here and now of our existence on this rocky planet. Which, I’d propose, is about as much as we can hope to know.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

As a matter of interest, there is a philosophy professor in my home town, Prof. David Benatar, who holds an anti-natalist position. He has written, among other books, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

Keith said...

With its emphasis, Thomas, on life involving suffering, pain, and harm — along with an appeal to nonreproduction — antinatalism strikes me as a rather melancholy, misanthropic philosophy. I wonder if, at the risk of what one might label ‘values dissonance’, any antinatalists do nonetheless choose to bring children into this world. I also wonder whom or what antinatalists might blame for our species’ faults, and the dystopian conditions it's purported to endure.

Martin Cohen said...

The conversation is a little off the point, though, isn't it? Perhaps Wittgenstein's fault. Isn't the real debate about what might survive bodily death? The Christian promise that our physical bodies, whether by literal resurrection or by reconstruction from an ideal blueprint representing the best bits of our actual lives, is rather illogical not to say implausible. However, the idea that our consciousness, which is in itself a mysterious thing, might survive is well, still to be talked about surely. At the point of death, we have all our cells, but we lose this spark. There are those intriguing neuroscience stories which seem to show we have SEVERAL conscius beings in our heads, though, maybe a multitude. Likewise, the thermostat is conscious of the temperature but only as part of a system. Doesn't it all come back to the problem of assuming that there IS an individual an 'I' in Descartes famous dictum - as it is usually rendered.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Descartes may have made a mistake at the start, from which I think we may learn. Words are not simple but complex, and 'Cogito ergo sum' (or 'Dubito ergo cogito ergo sum') may slip meanings of 'o' into the discussion unnoticed -- about the self. It's an example I think of what Kamlah and Lorenzen called 'an unacknowledged metaphysics'.

With regard to the survival of the self, I think there is a question which is prior to it and deeper, which is whether the acceptance of a 'closed universe' is justified -- which is a universe in which all physical things are caused by physical things. Einstein arguably answered no -- that determinism is merely a feature of theories.

Keith said...

I’ve heard much, Martin, about whether the something that possibly survives bodily death is consciousness. The discussion, as put to me by such advocates, is generally that consciousness is ubiquitous, nonperishable, and non-reducible. And by non-reducible, they mean it survives bodily death as a net-positive feature of the universe. Almost as if individual consciousness is a renter that moves on when the lease is up on the body.

I’ve always felt, from such discussions, that there’s a ring of pansychism to it — though that undoubtedly oversimplifies. One theoretical physicist with whom I’d talk about this would equate the leftovers of consciousness, upon the body’s death, to other forces that don’t fade. (Though, not to get distracted here, if that’s so, then the next obvious question is whether, and how, entropy affects consciousness.)

But after all was said and done, I’d invariably feel uncomfortable about the overarching direction of the discussion, my wondering whether such beliefs in the survivability of consciousness as just a way to gussy up, in fancier modern, scientific terms — which advocates might think gives the concept respectability and credibility, and gives those advocates a warm-and-fuzzy feeling — something that in another era might simply be referred to as the soul.

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