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 (81% in 2004) 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.

Some examples. 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.

Zombies: A Case for God

Zombies are logically possible. That is, we can conceive of them. They aren’t like square circles. Philosophical zombies are human bodies that look and act just like we do, but have no experiences, no inner world. They aren’t conscious in this sense. They will tell you they are conscious if asked, by the way.  For their brain circuits are sufficient for this and any other human behavior.

A world that has complex organisms that do what we do yet lack consciousness is possible. If so, then consciousness is an added feature to a material world.  All of our survival can be explained purely in terms the evolution of mechanisms, without mentioning inner experience even once. Consciousness, defined strictly as inner experience, doesn’t have a real explanatory role.

Thus the philosopher David Chalmers thinks that consciousness is a primitive. It may be a basic feature of the universe, or at least as basic as matter and energy. It doesn’t seem explainable in terms of them. (For more about zombies and materialism, see this blog post from Phillip Goff. For more about the troubles of explaining consciousness, see this blog by Bobby Azarian).

“What does this have to do with God?” you might ask. Well, if there is something more than what physics studies (the material universe), that might open the door for immaterial beings like God. Moreover, given that there is no physical explanation for consciousness, and if it also is a primitive, then consciousness could only come from consciousness. And since God is an always existing conscious being, God could be an explanation for consciousness.

This wouldn’t be enough for a case for God: for one could just say that our consciousness derives from some general consciousness woven throughout the universe, and didn’t come from a particular conscious being. There is additional evidence for God, however, this evidence is problematic to skeptics. But one reason it is problematic may be disarmed by the mystery of consciousness.

The problematic evidence: consider the Kalam Cosmological Argument: The universe had a beginning, and things with beginnings have causes. Therefore, something caused the universe. That something must be outside the universe, and that something isn’t material (otherwise it would be part of the universe). Add to this that other features of the universe, such as the fine-tuning of physical constants for life, seem designed. Perhaps the cause of the universe is an immaterial mind.

The problem with the problematic evidence: we know that many features of our minds depend on physical brains. But there was no cosmic brain existing before the universe! Postulating such a being as an explanation for the universe is ridiculous, as Richard Dawkins argues, for a God like this would have be immensely complex and improbable.

How consciousness helps: Consciousness seems inexplicable in terms of brains. This opens up the possibility of a non-physical explanation. And, for all we know, there might be non-physical ways in which to instantiate other parts of the mind. So there could be such things as minds without problematically complex brains. And these ways, even if complex, might not contribute to improbability like physical complexity does (e.g., even complex mathematical statements are no less probable than simple ones). Thus God may not be such a long shot as Dawkins and others suppose.

It is a bit speculative to speak of such things; but regarding the beginning of the universe, and the fine tuning of the physical constants, it’s no more speculative than any of the other hypotheses floating around (especially the multiverse hypothesis). This, plus the fact that perhaps the most important part of mind can’t be explained purely in terms of physics fits better with this hypothesis than with atheistic naturalism. For not only could God create matter, He can create mind as well. Not so for multiverses. All a multiverse could do is create zombies.

The Most-Mentioned Problem for Dualism Disarmed

The most mentioned problem for dualism (see earlier posts for what dualism is and why it is important. Edit: By the way, what I mean by ‘dualism’ here is substance dualism) is the interaction problem. It goes like this: physical things and mental things have a different set of properties: physical things have volume, mass, charge, location, etc. Mental things, such as thoughts or minds, do not have these properties. If this is true, then how could a mind ever have an effect on the physical world? At best they would be epiphenominal, that is, causal floaters that can effect nothing. Thus if dualism is true there is no way for, say, my mind to move my body. But since our mental states do affect our bodies, dualism cannot be true. Our mental states either are physical, realized by the physical, or don’t exist in the sense we think they do.

My answer: The problem of physical causation is not specific to dualism. David Hume has famously attacked the notion of causation, showing that it is a meaningless concept if it refers to anything above and beyond mere regularities (given empiricism). “Necessary connexions” (his spelling) are leftover useless metaphysics, as they cannot be traced to anything we experience with the senses.

Later on the logical positivists were fine with this reduction of causation to regularity. But then if physical causation is mere regularity, why can’t non-physical things stand in regularity relations with physical objects? I see no reason why they couldn’t. That is, whatever answer anyone has to Hume regarding problems with causation work both for mental and physical causation. Other analyses (such as David Lewis’s counterfactual analysis) can also work with minds/thoughts too.

So there is no special problem for dualism regarding causation.