Is There Life After Death?
The belief in life after death is rather prevalent here in the USA. Since no one believes their body lives forever, this life after death involves the person's soul living forever. I suspect that most believers in life after death are not aware of the logical consequences of this belief.
The concept of a soul is very much part of Christianity. It certainly dates back farther than Jesus, since the ancient Egyptians prepared their Pharaoh for his journey in the afterlife after he died. However, the concept of the soul is very much part of the thinking that keeps the Christian person apart from nature (as described in other pages in this site). Even though a person is very much a part of his environment, his soul is not. It apparently just appears when a person is born (the gift of life?) and it resides in the person's body until the body dies, and then the soul leaves (sounds like a parasite) to go to heaven or hell. From my perspective, the body is in the soul, not the soul is in the body. My soul - what I am - is very much an integrated part of my universe. I cannot be isolated from it because I am a part of it. When my body dies, my universe is affected by the loss and there is not a separate spiritual entity that can 'hang around' after the death.
If our destiny in life is to live our lives just to demonstrate whether we are suitable for heaven or we should be sentenced to hell, one would think that everyone has a chance to play the game by these rules. When a child dies in the first couple years of life, then what? The person and his/her soul did not have time to develop a personality, nor time to demonstrate their goodness or badness. If such a child is allowed to pass to heaven, the soul is immature, with no real sense of language, morals, values and personality. If this child's soul instantly becomes an adult in the afterlife, then that denies the connection of a person to his/her environment. The child's personality, morals, values, likes/dislikes and so much more are a reflection of his/her environment, especially the immediate family. I am not sure if a person's soul is supposed to be that of an adult at birth and it is just restrained until adulthood. That is in conflict with what we know of a person's development from birth through childhood. Similarly, with people that are mentally retarded, are their souls magically transformed to be very different than when their persons were alive? It would seem that the rules of the game are not consistent for all the players.
I was taught (as a Catholic) that when we die, our soul goes to heaven (or hell). For the rest of eternity, we no longer have bodies. I cannot comprehend how totally boring an eternity will be with nothing to do. Our life as a person consists of challenges, successes and failures. Sometimes, we can be very happy, other times sad. After a day with sadness, a day with happiness is appreciated much more. Each day is different than the day before. Some tasks remain every day (like shaving in the morning) but no day is like any other.
What does your soul do in heaven for an eternity? Without a body, you can't DO anything. You can just THINK about it (but with no brain of course). You cannot see, feel, hear, smell or touch anything; these are senses of the human body as interpreted by the human brain. Perhaps you can visit with the souls of your loved ones, but over an eternity eventually you will run out of things to 'talk' about because there is nothing new happening. (Communication between souls must be magical of course as there is no human voice involved, with its capability of emphasis and emotion, which can be amplified by the accompanying facial expressions.) There are no new trials and tribulations to discuss. There is no incentive to learn anything more because there is nothing to do with the knowledge. There are no new skills to learn because there is nothing physical that can be done.
After considering what heaven is like, is this life after death something to look forward to or to dread? Supposedly, those that lived their lives with 'mortal sins' go to hell rather than heaven. Hell is supposed to be an eternity of pain, under the supervision of Satan, the evil 'God.' The description of heaven sounds like an eternity of boredom. What really is the difference between heaven and hell?
There is also a Christian teaching of the final coming (a 'second' coming of Jesus Christ, a belief based on ancient myths), sometimes called Judgment Day. This teaching might be in response to the dilemma of an eternity without a physical body. At this time when God chooses who are saved and who are not, we are to be reunited with our bodies long decomposed. I do not know what age is chosen for these resurrected bodies - is the body at the same age that the person died, is everyone a teenager or somewhere in between? Perhaps we are magically allowed to change ages at will.
After this reunion with our bodies, then what? If we are living on earth again, as heaven on earth, are all arguments, all bad weather, all illnesses to be prevented? I imagine that those that were widowed and happily married to more than one spouse might have a conflict. If aging is prevented then this heaven becomes a similar story of eternal boredom as destined for the souls in heaven. If everyone is good and no one is bad while every event is good and nothing bad happens, this sounds extremely boring. Again, there will be no challenges to overcome and no incentive to learn, to improve, to help others, and so on.
Either picture of life after death ends in the same boring situation. The life after death scenario is really just a denial of human life, and a hope for life without death. Unfortunately, just as there cannot be light without dark or up without down or right without left, there cannot be life without death.
There are some that believe in reincarnation, including some Eastern religions. Similarly this belief detaches oneself from the environment. A person's 'self' is the result of his/her environment (parents, friends, community, religion, culture, country, etc.), not the continuation of a previous life in the 19th century, perhaps in another country or another culture. The belief that a person is the reincarnation of a person who lived in the past denies the connection that essence of the person (or the 'soul') has with his/her present surroundings. The belief that a person is reincarnated as an animal is even stranger, implying that such an animal has obtained at birth human characteristics (including morality and a higher intelligence) that would not be found otherwise in this animal.
Maybe some might think that there is no harm in believing that this life is just temporary, that we are just passing through (as I once heard Chuck Colson describe it on Christian Family Radio). Unfortunately, that belief diminishes the importance of human life. The lonely soul just waits for death to come. The only incentive to helping others is the belief that such behavior will be rewarded in the after life. This scenario denies our human nature, being part of the human society. Our existence is an integral part of the human community. The waiting for the after life distracts the believer from that insight since the belief in the afterlife presumes the essence of a person is wholly contained within the soul.
Once a person is relieved of the burden endured by the belief in a soul, then the wonder of our existence becomes apparent. We are an important member of a community, contributing to its health and future while it provides support and security. This understanding of one's environment will tend to illuminate the complexity of the universe that fostered its development. As is described elsewhere in this site, this change in perspective can enable the improvement of humanity.
The belief in an after life prevents humanity from truly flowering into an advanced intelligent society. The progress that humanity has made in the last few centuries is at risk now as religious and nationalistic emotions bring us to the brink of our destruction. As each war and conflict becomes more violent, we might be running out of time.
The belief in a life after death is a reminder that the person does not understand his/her role as an active participant in their own universe.
I have enjoyed the company of many pets, both dogs and cats. Each one has its own personality. I have had two Golden Retrievers, one a purebred the other not, and though they had similar personalities they were unique. If people have a life after death, do pets? They share the possession of a personality with humans. A death of a pet is as sad as that of a close friend. What would a cat or dog do in its afterlife?
I know my cats enjoy wrestling with each other, watching birds in their nest just outside a window, laying in the sun for hours. I assume a cat in its afterlife would just be dormant. A cat is part of its environment. I have heard from others (I have never moved a cat) that when a cat is moved into a new house they will sometimes rebel. They tend to be rather territorial, since they developed their comfort level with their surroundings. We have always had more than one cat and a pecking order is always present. There is always one that is the primary cat. When that cat dies, then the other cats adjust their behaviors with each other as a result. To suggest a cat will have an afterlife is to suggest the soul of the cat will be in misery forever.
While cats are so connected with their environment, dogs are typically very connected to their human masters. Our golden retrievers will love fetching a tennis ball for a long time. They enjoy going for a walk that is the same as every other time. A dog is part of its human family. To suggest a dog will have an afterlife is to suggest the soul of the dog will be in misery forever.
While one might imagine a dog (or cat) and its family having fun in a common afterlife, that vision always presumes physical forms. The afterlife is spiritual, not physical. The relationship of pets to humans is on the physical level. I expect that most pet owners do not carry on intellectual conversations with their pets, since the pet does not respond on that level.
Perhaps pets are not a common topic of discussion for life after death. Zoologist Donald Griffin of Rockefeller University died in late 2003. He endorsed the view that many animal species think about their actions and feelings, though such thoughts differ from those in people. This is/was certainly a controversial opinion but it presents an interesting sidelight here. For those that propose that a person's soul lives after one's death, which animals possess a soul and which do not? What are the criteria for that distinction?
I have been involved with computers for most of my career. I have written software programs in many different languages to be run on quite a few different hardware platforms. Most of my programs have been for industrial automation applications so they could be claimed to have a very drab personality. With a keyboard and perhaps a mouse, the interaction is rather static, make some entry or command and the program, via the computer display, responds accordingly, sometimes affecting other hardware peripherals. The basic software program is just a basic stimulus and a simple response.
The Microsoft operating systems are sometimes thought to have rather fickle personalities. Most of the time they do want you want and how you want it, but not always. Sometimes it misbehaves so badly that you have to reset the hardware to get the personality restored to its typical state.
Computers, operating systems and software applications are becoming so complex that now robots that interact with people are possible. Software that recognizes handwriting and human speech are now available. As the software is developed so that the computer can handle a much wider range of stimuli (such as sentence structure) and can provide a much wider range of responses (such as understandable language replies), I expect the package of hardware and software will develop a personality. The language software could even provide different tones to represent emotions.
No matter how complex these software programs become, they are still a collection of stimulus/response algorithms. When the computer is turned off, even if the computer program itself is stored in memory or in a hard disk file, perhaps even including all of the user's parameters so that after a power cycle every things behaves exactly the same, the program is dead. It is not running (or alive?). Its personality is not hanging in the air, waiting for its physical aspect to get power restored.
I suspect that most people that believe in life after death do not appreciate the fantastic pattern recognition computer that is our brain. Just a wisp of a scent can conjure up a variety of good or bad memories. A word with the first and last letters correct but the intermediate letters jumbled will usually be recognized by the reader - and rather quickly. That brain is certainly linked to one's senses. ESP implies other linkages that we do not yet understand.
The belief in life after death is a denial of the wonder of life.
Computers and brains
Understanding how computers work also provides an interesting contrast with the mechanisms in the human brain. The main processor in a computer, on a fundamental level, is rather simple. It is given an instruction in a single word (the number of bits at a time depends on the chip itself). These instructions include simple ones, like add two numbers or compare two numbers, and they include more complex ones, like arithmetic with floating point numbers. The software programmer develops a program for a computer using a programming tool (Visual Basic is a fairly common language) and this tool converts the software program into the instructions for the computer. This output then drives other requirements for the computer, like the amount of memory and the size of the hard disk to hold the program.
The interesting observation is that the computer itself is really just electronic circuitry that does nothing by itself. It must be given a program to run. The program usually resides on a disk. When the computer's power is switched off, the program is not lost because it resides not in the computer chip but on the disk, which does not require power since the information is saved physically (the physical mechanism depends on whether it is a magnetic or optical medium). Because the program can reside on a movable device, like a CD, it can be moved from computer to computer.
The brain is not built in the same manner as a computer. There is no central processing unit in the brain that loads its program from some other device. The brain is, at the same time, both the memory and the analyzer. Different parts of the brain have different tasks, for a variety of requirements like muscle control, sensory analysis, short-term and long-term memory. In computer lingo, this is distributed processing. If the brain sustains an injury to one of its parts, then that operation of the brain is affected, and hence the brain's person. For example, a severe trauma might affect recent memory, resulting in amnesia. A stroke might affect muscular control for half of one's body.
The very important distinction between a computer and a brain is the computer has its programming brought to it via some type of device (CD, hard disk, etc.) whereas the brain has it all - with no remote backup. When the brain dies, the memory dies.
The belief in a life after death is almost a belief in the brain having its programming brought in from a remote location - which has been called the soul. This belief is inconsistent with our knowledge of the brain's operations. Physical damage to the brain can have consequences for the person's capabilities, behavior and personality. If the person's personality - or his/her soul - were truly separate from the brain, this would not happen.
Over the years, I have seen several movies and television shows that portray the transmission of an actor's personality or soul to another person (or even a thing). Unlike a computer, the brain is not equipped with the feature of transmitting its physical attributes that contain its memory. There is no simple way to capture a person's memory because the details are held physically within the neurons of the brain. Even if a future machine could be built like an MRI but designed to record the contents of every neuron, it must also capture every physical connection between every neuron. The brain works with pattern matching, requiring the interaction between neurons to obtain a result. To capture a person's memory, the machine must reproduce the physical brain exactly. If this machine performed this reproduction virtually (in software not physically) to move this memory to another person, it must reconstruct that person's brain to match. Memory cannot be loaded into a person like it can in a computer. A recent movie of note is the movie about human cloning - Sixth Day. In the movie, a person's memory is captured onto a CD by a special computer 'reading' the person through his/her eyes. The contents of the CD allow a new copy of the person to be constructed from a 'blank' human (which is featureless before the process so physical changes in appearance are part of the cloning). This movie, like the others using this plot, assumes that the brain can be 'loaded' with an external memory but this denies that the brain holds its memory physically. The brain learns by physical changes. These movies/shows imply the brain can run from two sources - its internal memory or an external source (like a CD but is it a stretch to mention a soul?). It does not.
The belief in life after death is a denial of the physical wonder of the human brain. Many years ago, with the lack of current scientific understanding, the idea that my soul rides in my head and when the body dies my soul continues to live would be easy to fall for. In the 21st century, that should not be the case.
created - Nov. 2001
last change - 03/27/2004
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