Should a Rational, Educated Person Believe in Life After Death?

If you asked a neuroscientist or a science-oriented-person-in-general, you would probably hear, “No.” After all, the mind is the brain and when the brain dies, so does the mind. Nothing survives death. There are no “souls.” The view that the mind is distinct from the brain and can survive the death of the body is called dualism, and it is very unpopular with neuroscientists and philosophers. It is so unpopular, in fact, that well-known philosophers such as Daniel Dennett don’t even need bother with a refutation of it — they just merely say “no one believes that anymore” and dismiss it (see here) to move on to their own form of materialism.

On the other hand, the vast majority of the American public (80% in 2014) does believe in life after death. When Dennett said nobody believes in dualism anymore, he was obviously referring to academics and neuroscientists — they are the ones that matter, I suppose. Are the experts right and the American masses wrong here? Has dualism been proven false?

No. In fact, Dennett himself more or less admits this. Consider this quote regarding dualism:

This fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up. (Explaining Consciousness, p. 37)

So the reason Dennett rejects dualism (and life after death) because it’s “antiscientific,” because it’s “giving up.” It’s not because it has been shown to be wrong. It stops scientific enquiry. Good enough.

More could be said, of course. Scientists, by in large, follow the principle of methodological naturalism; they do not consider the supernatural in their investigations. This doesn’t rule out the supernatural per se, but when following this principle leads to all the advances the neurosciences has enjoyed, it makes one doubt that there is a supernatural thing like the soul behind it all. Much remains to be explained in the neurosciences, but the fact that so much has been explained has given materialist neuroscientists and philosophers reason to at least place a very heavy burden of proof on those who do believe in souls.

But is that all that can be said? Should all the poor, benighted masses stop going to church, believing in the afterlife, believing that loved-ones who have passed away are in heaven as part of their “educational advancement?” I think that the above reasoning could be challenged on two points. The first is the use of burden of proof among soul deniers. They require acceptable evidence for the soul. Unfortunately, this may not be possible even if there are such things as souls, for if anything were claimed to be evidence for the soul, materialists would simply say that there is a perfectly good natural explanation for it.

An example. Emotions are evidence for the soul, you say? Well, we can explain that with the activity of neurons in the hippocampus, the presence or absence of certain neurotransmitters, etc. etc. On the other hand, if there is no current neurobiological explanation for the phenomenon, then the materialist can either say that we should wait for one (give neuroscience some more time, for it has an excellent track record), or say that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. Free will (taken as most people mean it), for example, may not have a neurobiological explanation, but people like Dennett or Patricia Churchland would simply say that it doesn’t exist. The same goes for first-person experience, consciousness. Consciousness (or at least certain features of consciousness, such as the raw experiences known as qualia) is notoriously hard to explain just in terms of the brain. Those aspects of consciousness not explainable by science are deemed fictions, merely a part of a pre-scientific “folk psychology.”

Notice that these moves can be made even if there are such things as souls. And it would be nearly impossible to disprove them, given that they could keep making these same moves against any attempt to disprove them. In other words, materialism is unfalsifiable — even if it were false, there is no observation or reasons that could ever disprove it. Hence it is untestable, and ironically, unscientific.

You might say, “Ok, so it’s impossible to win an argument with a die hard materialist. So what? That doesn’t mean there are souls or that we should believe in them. ” And you would be right regarding the first point: materialism’s unfalsifiability doesn’t imply that it’s actually false, or that there are souls. But what about the second point? Maybe there might be reason to believe in souls, even if they can’t be proven to exist.

There are practical reasons. Belief in the afterlife gives people comfort. It allows them to hope for loved ones who have passed, and a hope for a reunion in the future. It also gives reason for people to “be good,” even if they can get away with being bad. They might be punished in the afterlife, or the next life. Another is that the afterlife is a central part of most religions. Abandoning it means giving up one’s religion. One other thing, it allows us to forget about death. As we get older, we start seeing the end more clearly. Belief that the end really isn’t the end allows me, at any rate, to not obsess about it as much.

Ok, I know a lot of people wouldn’t see the previous paragraph as much of a motivation. They have settled into a scientific worldview and have become comfortable with it. But I’m not speaking to them. For them, their bet has been made; they are betting on naturalism. But it is a bet; we can’t forget or deny it. Naturalism (the view that only scientific things can exist) is not known to be true. It’s a hunch, a take, a perspective. But so are worldviews that allow a place for the supernatural.

When it comes to whether or not to accept naturalism, it’s not about evidence, really. It’s about what first seems plausible to a person. She forms a worldview. Then she goes and interprets the evidence in light of this worldview. But as to deciding which worldview to take, evidence isn’t the ultimate deciding factor — it’s also about what she values, fears, and hopes for.

Given that naturalism/materialism hasn’t been proven, and that it has such a hard time with consciousness, free will, rationality, and other features of the mind, I don’t see it as the only bet a person could make. One could acknowledge all that neuroscience, as science, and not as philosophy, says, and still bet on the afterlife by believing in it. And for many people, the benefits outweigh the costs.