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Why I Do Not Believe In An Afterlife

By Paul So ~

I didn’t believe in an afterlife even as a devout Christian because I was raised in an Adventist church that taught that there is no immediate afterlife, only a unconscious sleep after death but in the end of time there is a resurrection when we do become conscious again with new glorified bodies. I was told that the bible never explicitly said that there is an immortal soul that wholly pertains to our personal identity that survives after death. This does not mean that my former religious belief promotes materialism; on the contrary it believes that we are spiritual beings who simply go to “sleep” after we die. Our spirituality derives not only from our soul but simply being connected to God.

I eventually ceaseed to be a Christian and an Adventist altogether since I became less convinced that God existed. But the idea of afterlife didn’t really bother me very much because I wasn’t raised in a religious tradition that believes in it. However, my upbringing is not the only reason why I do not believe in the immortal soul and the afterlife. I personally think that while the bible didn’t explicitly talk about immortal souls, it did believe in a vague kind of vitalism in which life came into existence through the “breath of God”. This is something that I do reject, while many Adventist would probably believe. I think life is essentially a complex emergent pattern constituted by complex carbon molecules. Precisely because of this, I do not believe in a resurrection that Adventists understand: If our personal identity is dependent on complex patterns of our physical bodies (i.e. genes), then any fundamental changes in that body is also a fundamental change in my personal identity. If that’s the case then when my body is resurrected in its new “glorified” form by God then I become a very different person. If that’s the case then the paradoxical question arises: Is it really me that is being resurrected or is the resurrection simply a new kind of “me” that really isn’t me? Some can retort that God can retain some original parts of me to make sure that the glorified body retains who I am, but then this goes to the question as to what part of “me” is really “me”. They can argue that memories could be considered one of them, but that makes no sense: what’s the difference between the new resurrected version of me having the old memories of the “old me” vs. a memory displaced from an original body to an entirely different body? Well, the correct answer is that both scenarios are strongly analogical together because like the entirely new body that has the memory displaced from the original body, the resurrected body has a memory from an original body. So, no, I do not think my former Adventist belief has much effect on my intellectual outlook on afterlife anyways since I reject both the popular Christian notion of afterlife and the Adventist notion.

The main reason why I do not believe in an afterlife and the immortality of the soul is because I encountered a philosophical position called Substance Dualism argued by Rene Descartes; not only had I encountered it but I also learned why it was such an abysmal failure. Its abysmal failure is probably one of the most important reasons why I do not accept the idea of the immortal soul and the afterlife. I will try to explain Substance Dualism as well as its “abysmal failure” in order to elucidate why I do not accept immortality of the soul and afterlife from a philosophical perspective. I will also try to challenge the idea of afterlife from another philosophical perspective of personal identity. I will finally try to deal with the emotional, practical, and philosophical implications of rejecting the afterlife.

Substance Dualism is the philosophical position that there are two independent realities or substances called body and soul. The proponent of this position is Rene Descartes who famously said “I think, therefore I am”. There is a philosophical meaning behind the statement “I think, therefore I am” which is not only Descartes attempt to find a foundational axiom but also his suggestion that the soul (which thinks) can exist independently of the body. To understand this a little better, Descartes used the method of radical doubt which gets rid of all beliefs that are easily subjected to doubt if they derive mostly from sensory experience than reason. With this in mind, it makes sense for Descartes to doubt whether his own body exist because he derives this knowledge from his sensory experience (i.e. looking at mirror, feeling the body, etc). However he can never doubt that his own mind exists because when he thinks about the mind the thinking is done by the mind. He used this as an argument that the mind is therefore somehow independent of the body.

From there he believes that both the mind and the body are fundamentally different in every sense of the word. The mind is that which believes, doubt, feels, desires, knows, anticipates, plans, experiences etc; it is immaterial, in other words it is not a physical thing. It has its own unique qualities and properties that the body does not have. Therefore it is its own substance. The body on the other hand has extension, in other words spatial and temporal qualities. The body has height, length, and width that constitute a three-dimensional body. It is also subjected to the laws or forces of Nature such as gravity, electromagnetism, laws of motion, thermodynamics, etc. The body has properties that the mind does not have; therefore the body is its own substance independent of the mind.

So far Descartes argument looks good, right? Well, at first but eventually along the way many philosophers including Descartes’ pupils (one of who was Countess Elizabeth of Bohemia) begin to find problems with Descartes’ dualism. For one thing, how the hell do the mind and the body interact with each other if they are so fundamentally different from each other? It may seem like an easy answer: They just do. But that doesn’t explain how they do so, and there is something about Descartes argument that suggests that the body and the mind cannot interact with each other.

For one thing, if the mind is an immaterial being that lacks physicality, which also includes spatial properties, then how does it occupy “inside” the body? If it lacks its own length, width, height, and other spatial properties then how can it occupy inside the body literally? For something to be inside of something it has to have a size relatively and sufficiently small in contrast to that which it fits in; there also has to be a sufficient measurable space within a container for something to fit in. But if the mind lacks properties of height, length, and width and other three-dimensional characteristics then it can neither be small or big because it lacks the quantitative measurability to be quantitatively compared to something else.

“To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one's self to die."Secondly, how does the mind move the body? We know that the body moves because of the electrical signal sent by the motor cortex of the brain, but how does the mind fit into this? The body is subjected to the laws of motion since it has kinetic energy (which is physical by the way) that transferred to make it move. Things also move by being in physical contact with each other to transfer that kinetic energy. But that’s the thing, movement as we usually understand it requires close physical contact. But if we are talking about the mind the mind cannot be in close physical contact with the body because the mind is non-physical! It’s not just that the mind cannot do this, but rather Descartes hasn’t given an explanation for how this works. Descartes’ pupil Countess Elizabeth of Bohemia ask how the mind could move the body if movement is mostly explained through close physical contact; but the mind cannot do this since it is not physical. Descartes couldn’t find a good answer to the question, so Countess simply said she preferred materialist understanding of the mind since at least it doesn’t face the same problems as that of Descartes’ theory of the mind.

This also includes another problem: the body is physical in so far as it has spatial and temporal qualities (it is old, it is big, etc.) but if the mind is not physical then how can the mind cause the body to move if causation itself is a spatial-temporal phenomenon? (Or that’s what most philosophers and physicists would assume). Descartes didn’t have a good answer to this: his only answer is that the mind is located in the pineal gland but that didn’t really answer the question at all. Nobody asked where the mind is located, but they did implicitly ask how is it possible for the mind to have a spatial location if it is non-spatial.

This brings us to the last question that philosophers may not have asked: Why the hell do we need an afterlife? An afterlife occurs after death (which is why it’s called an afterlife, since it is literally after life) of the body; when the body dies the mind ceases to occupy the body and becomes disembodied. But here’s the problem: how does the mind (or soul) become embodied? How does it occupy the body? From what we just learn from the criticisms against Descartes, it seems like the mind doesn’t need (or cannot) embody or occupy the body in the first place! If that’s the case, then there is no afterlife. Also, why can’t our mind leave the body as much as it pleases to? Why can’t the mind simply will itself to leave the body? What restrictions or impose limits are there that suggests the mind has to be in the body as long as the body is alive? Why does the mind occupy this specific kind of body but not another? The criticisms against Descartes’ Substance Dualism do not explain any of these. Because the mind is its own substance with unique properties, hence exists independently of the body, it sounds strange that the mind has to be occupied in this specific arbitrary body.

Also, another interesting question: how does the light that is transmitted to the retina cause a mental state of visual experience? How does the electrical impulse that is transmitted through my nervous system to the C-Fibers in my brain turn into a mental state of the experience of pain? How any physical event becomes or leads to a mental state? So how do the conditions of the physical body cause mental states in the mind? Not only does there seem to be a problem of the mind causing the body to move, but also the body causing the mind to have experiences of itself and the external world; it seems impossible to explain how the mind knows the external physical world if the external physical world cannot cause the mind to have mental experiences. This is a problem because, again, Descartes causal explanation between the body and the mind would contradict his views that they are two independent spheres of reality constituted by different qualities.

Ever since these criticisms emerged, Descartes’ Substance Dualism is no longer popular in philosophical circles. Most philosophers simply do not believe in this primarily because Descartes failed to explain some of these fundamental questions against his theory of the mind. Yet to this day many people still believe in the afterlife. They still believe that after the body dies a personal identity of the person still persists to exist without the body. But there are some strange paradoxes about this belief that is usually applied on an everyday life.

We determine who our biological parents are by our genes because their half of their respective chromosomes during the state of reproduction intertwined together to form a new chromosome. This new chromosome acquires traits from both the father and the mother to make up an independent entity that will become a person. So what makes the child a biological child is that it has chromosomes that derives from its biological parents. But if we suppose that the child has a soul, a personal identity that persists to exist after the body dies, then let’s think about this scenario: The child dies when he/she was trying to cross the street without looking on the side for approaching cars. When the child’s body arrives at the ER it is already too late to save the child.

After the child’s death the child’s soul is disembodied from the body. It exists independently from the body. But if this is the case, then the child is no longer has a biological parent hence it is no longer a biological child. On the other hand, even if the child’s soul survives after death, the parents can no longer say that the soul of their child is their biological child. How is this possible? Well, if the body dies then eventually so does the genes and chromosomes that occupy the body; and the child’s soul do not have any genes and chromosomes! If the soul is not physical, and genes/chromosomes are physical, then it follows that the soul has no genes/chromosomes. If it has no genes and chromosomes, then it follows that it has no fundamental biological that underpins the biological relation between the child and the parents. So technically, the disembodied soul does not have a biological parent and it is no longer a biological child of someone.

Well, let’s take the basic reasoning of this argument and apply it to a different scenario. Let’s conjure up the scenario of freaky Friday when the souls of both the mother and the daughter exchange bodies involuntarily. The mother occupies the body of the teenage daughter and the teenage daughter occupies the body of the mother. If a soul occupies a living body, it follows that it occupies a body with certain traits such as genes/chromosomes. If the daughter occupies the body of the mother, then it occupies a body with genes/chromosomes of the mother. If the daughter occupies a body with genes/chromosomes of the mother then in some sense she is a biological mother of the body that her mother occupies. The mother conversely is the biological daughter of the body her daughter occupies. The daughter becomes a biological mother and the mother becomes a biological daughter.

Strange, isn’t it? Well I know that on the psychological level you would still think of the disembodied soul of the child and the teenage daughter to remain as child and teenage daughter since their emotional connection and memories of the other persons (i.e. parents) remain intact. That’s generally true, but on a technical level the paradox still remains. This does not refute the existence of souls, but it does make an inference to the absurd conclusion that many of us would find counter-intuitive. In a sense it weakens the belief in the soul and afterlife.
I personally think that we believe in an afterlife because we have the essentialist tendency to think of others as having a personal identity that cannot be reduced to mere biological levels. We think that person has an essence that makes the person who she/he is, and we normally do not think of their body as being part of that essence. I personally believe that our personal identity is a very complex emergent property that emerged from a combination of our genes and environmental influences. Without the genes and environmental influences, our personal identity would probably not exist. This does not upset me the way it would upset the religious because it only shows me that my personal identity is not an isolated entity but rather something that is inevitably a part of Nature.

Many religious believers would like to think that the belief in the soul and afterlife (along with God) is the basis of spirituality. On the contrary I believe that a belief in a personal identity that is wholly dependent on the environmental influences and genes can also be a basis for spirituality since it is a testimony that we are intrinsically part of Nature (by Nature, I mean universe). We cannot exist separately from Nature but rather we exist as a part of that which explains who we are. To think of ourselves as separate entities, then, is an illusion. To understand ourselves as related to everything in the universe, on the other hand, is reality. To believe in the existence of some immortal soul implicitly suggests that we are separate from Nature; it also introduces a false dichotomy of Self/Nature. Our true self is more or less like a causal thread connected billions of threads of the Cosmic Web.

This all sounds great, but this also means that when I die there is no afterlife; I do not survive after death. This sound horrible to many who desire to believe in an afterlife since it comforts them that they will survive after death including their love ones. How can we not believe in an afterlife if the consequences or implications of not believing in it could be psychologically and existentially unbearable? Well, when people ask these kinds of questions I always remember Epicurus’ argument. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who argued that it is ultimately irrational to be afraid of death. He has at least two arguments to make this case.

First, Epicurus asserts that “If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not”. He reasons that if death is the cessation of consciousness then it is cessation of both pleasure and pain. If that’s the case then no harm or benefit can be done to me when I am dead. So why should I fear death if in death there is no harm done to me? Epicurus is not saying that we should kill ourselves, because remember according to Epicurus that in death there is no pleasure so we have no reasons to kill ourselves. What Epicurus is suggesting is that we tend to fear things that are painful to us. But death cannot be painful because death is a cessation of consciousness that make pain possible to begin with. So we should not be afraid of death.

This is probably least convincing for many of you, but considers the second argument called the “symmetrical argument”. Epicurus probably considered a counterargument that says “It is not just that we are afraid of death because if it painful, but rather we are afraid of not existing”. He responded by arguing that if it is the case that non-existence is something we find to be bad then we should consider our non-existence before birth to be bad as well; we simply do not exist before birth and after life, our lifespan is simply a narrow thread between non-existences of before and after. We did not exist for probably more than 13 billion years until now but after we die, let’s say, the age of 80 then we cease to exist for billions of years. So shouldn’t we find both sides of non-existences to be frightening? If we are so afraid of not existing then we can’t we have a before-life as much as afterlife?

Whether or not Epicurus’ argument convinces you, he does make a point that there is something unusual about being afraid of death if we think about it more carefully. I don’t think that Epicurus is saying that we should not be afraid of death, but rather there is something unusual about the reasons we give for being afraid of death. However I do not think that we can stop being afraid of death because we most likely will due to our innate tendency to be afraid of it in order to increase our survival rate.

However I want to point out the obvious that we are afraid of death because we desire to survive. While the desire to survive is reasonable in many cases, ultimately it becomes unreasonable since we cannot live forever. While technology expands our lifespan (and it could do much more in the future), as individuals we do not have absolute control in how much we live. We can certainly place as much effort as we can to expand our lifespan but there is a point where there is a limit that we probably cannot transcend. At this point we have to learn to accept that our existence is impermanent and temporary since there is nothing else we can do.

I do believe that ultimately understanding what we can control and what we cannot control, and coming to accept what we cannot control, would probably establish an attitude that could help us cope with our mortality. To end this essay with a quote, I believe it is Cicero, a stoic philosopher, who once said “To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one's self to die."