Does death end all?

Denyse O’Leary
26 May 2011
Reproduced with Permission

It is difficult to argue with the world's best-recognized cosmological scientist, Stephen Hawking, a man who has lived with death for 49 years, when he tells The Guardian: "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." (15 May 2011) It's too personal with him. But we might ask why do other intelligent people believe the opposite -- that physical death does not end all?

American commentator Dinesh D'Souza suggests a few such believers in his book Life After Death: The Evidence (Regnery 2009), as do Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and myself, in The Spiritual Brain (Harper One, 2007).

First, most people who have ever lived have assumed that there is immortality in some form. Neanderthals buried their dead seventy thousand years ago with tools, apparently for use in another world. Many were placed in a fetal position, suggesting that they awaited rebirth (Spiritual Brain, p. 27). And most people have not assumed that we survive death because they are "afraid of the dark," as Hawking supposes. On the contrary, the oldest beliefs usually include ancestor worship, which includes propitiating the continuing spirits of unpleasant ancestors for fear they will otherwise harm us. Or, as Beauregard and I put it, in such a society the problem isn't that everyone dies, but that no one does. (p. 48)

So is it wish fulfilment? Hardly, because most people who expect to survive death also fear divine punishment or cosmic consequences for unrepented sin. Fear then? No, not, for instance, among the ancient Greek philosophers who repudiated "the gods" but assumed immortality as a fact. Similarly, the Buddhists' law of karma (what goes around comes around) appoints the gods as divine helpers to the faithful, not creators or governors of karma. Even new atheists believe, in a sense. As d'Souza has observed,"new atheism" (modern atheistic materialism) makes immortality untenable by definition - except in its most vulgar forms (transhumanism, for example, where we are transformed through genetic engineering miracles or get uploaded into computer Sims).

Given the ubiquity of belief, let's look at some of the better traditional arguments for immortality:

  1. The irreducible nature of human consciousness. There is no reasonable theory of human consciousness coming from materialist science. In fact, bookshelves are now stuffed with tomes declaring that it is an illusion, a virtual illusion, or fraud. Such bold statements spring from desperation. If researchers knew what consciousness is, they would not describe it thus. There is no clear reason why those who study so much and know so little about consciousness should demand that the rest of us accept their view that it does not survive death.
  2. A sense of a perfection that has never been experienced. D'Souza puts it like this: "Our ideas ... contradict the reality of our lives. It seems that we, uniquely among all living and nonliving things, seek to repudiate the laws of evolution and escape the control of the laws of nature." (p. 167) For example, materialist atheists continue to have a sense of justice, but their attempts to account for it don't make sense. The best explanation is the traditional one: justice really exists and we sense it, but it is poorly realized here.
  3. The changed lives of people who have had near death experiences. It's often said that people find change hard, but as Beauregard and I discovered, near-deathers often change dramatically. The best noted change is that "the cultural values of wealth, status, and material possessions become much less important, and the perennial religious values of love, caring for others, and acquiring knowledge about the divine ascend to greater importance." And that change persists through time. They also lose their fear of death, relative to patients who had not had such an experience. (The Spiritual Brain, pp 160-62) The most reasonable explanation is that they had seen a reality that motivated them to change their value systems.

What about the claim that "science shows life after death can't be true!" Where science has actually shown things, rather than advancing speculations well ahead of facts - as increasing numbers of cosmologists do - what has it shown? A strange and wonderful world that no human eye could perceive, unaided. Those who insist that science makes immortality untenable (except on materialist terms) could usefully go back to Lord Kelvin's 1900 address, when he famously complained about two little dark clouds on the horizon of a completed physics, clouds soon to be blown away. The pesky clouds were, as it turned out, quantum mechanics and relativity.

At the end of the day, death is still the "undiscovered country," but the hints and glimpses of the other shore are good cause to accept it as a reality.