There is no Afterlife

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Admission to the afterlife has been the major selling point for most of the world’s religions, both ancient and modern. Without the promise of an afterlife, the conditions of Pascal’s Wager change, and religious practice becomes a waste of time.

Materialism Explains All Spiritual Phenomena

While the afterlife takes on as many forms are there are religions and denominations, all of these conceptions are based upon the notion that the soul survives the body’s death. However, this is unlikely because of the overwhelming support for materialism.

The personal self is dependent upon consciousness, which is dependent on a functioning brain. Since the brain dies when the body dies, so does the self. There is no “spiritual” event that cannot be accounted for by some material event occurring within the brain. Altering the brain alters the consciousness. If an independent detached self-consciousness were possible, it would still require a brain and sensory organs to experience and interface with the world; otherwise this disembodied consciousness would be unaware of its own existence. Besides the self is uniquely identifiable, but the soul is immaterial -- so how could individual souls tell one another apart? Even the best theologians have to resort to speculations about inter-soul telepathy, which is no different than asking how many angels dance on the head of a pin.

If souls did exist, they could just be a product of material processes, just like how wetness is an emergent property of water, without the need for an immaterial thing called wetness.[1]

The Arguments Against Materialism are Weak

Compounding the strength of the arguments for materialism is the weakness of the arguments against materialism. For example:

  • If materialism is true, then truth is either unreal or material, since according to materialism, all that is real is material. However, truth has no material qualities.
  • Materialism is illogical because it cannot be proven via logical arguments, since arguments are not material things.
  • While I can speak of some thoughts as being my own thoughts, what am I? The “I” that is thinking this is itself a thought. Generating the self can’t just be one of the brain’s tasks, since that means your brain possesses you, rather than you possessing a brain.
  • Thought transcends matter in many ways -- thought can be in many places at the same time and within many minds at once. Since no material thing can do that, thought is real, but not matter, and materialism is thus false.
  • Thought transcends physical laws via abstraction, since abstract, timeless, universal truths (e.g., 2 + 2 = 4, and the notions of equality or truth) have no spatial or temporal dimensions.

These and most other arguments against materialism can be dismissed by viewing thought, truth, consciousness, etc. as being information, which is a physical thing. Death, and its resulting decomposition of the brain, definitively destroys the self, just like how burning a newspaper destroys the words written in it.

The Arguments Supporting the Afterlife's Existence are Weak

While materialism does not definitively prove the non-existence of an afterlife, the arguments supporting the belief in an afterlife are extremely weak; in general, they are either logically fallacious or explainable via materialism.

Argument from Common Consensus

The vast majority of all people who have ever lived have believed in life after death. This is just the “common consent” argument for God, which says nothing about the actual truth of the matter; if a hundred million people do a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. As my mother liked to point out, “if they jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”

Argument from the Sages

Most of the great sages and wise men throughout history have believed in life after death, and it seems unlikely that this one belief should be the exception to their wisdom.

Appeals to authority are not logical fallacies per se, but they are in this case, because these sages are giving “expert opinions” outside of their experience, which is a non sequitur. Since expertise requires experience, only the dead can be experts on what occurs after death.

Argument from the “Spark of Life”

Many ancient languages use their “breath” as their word for “life” or “soul”, because they defined life as being the ability to breathe. This je ne sans quoi is not a material thing, and not composed of parts, because the living and the (un-mutilated) dead have equivalent sets of organs. Since this je ne sans quoi is not composed of parts, it cannot decompose, and thus persists.

However, this would equally apply to all life, so every animal, plant, fungus, and microorganism also has an immortal soul, which would necessitate their own version of the afterlife. Additionally, there is nothing about this "Spark of Life" which implies that it is immortal, and it is likely extinguished upon bodily death.

Argument from the Robustness of Souls

In Book 10 of The Republic, Plato describes how everything has its own natural, intrinsic weakness, which will eventually destroy it (e.g., rust destroys ironworks, the body succumbs to disease, etc.). However, souls are not destroyed by their intrinsic evils (e.g., vice, ignorance, and wickedness); therefore, souls are invincible.

However, this is not a useful argument, since it only demonstrates that souls are never destroyed while their bodies are alive; it states nothing about what happens after death. Additionally, this assumes that bodies and souls are two discrete and separate things. This argument cannot refute materialism, since it assumes that materialism is false, which begs the question.

God’s Love Ensures the Soul's Immortality

When you love someone, you don’t want their existence to cease. Since God is all-loving and all-powerful, he will prevent such destruction.

However, this presupposes a loving God, and his conduct and demeanor as recorded in the Bible demonstrates that this assumption is questionable at best. The Bible even offers several direct refutations of this argument.

Argument from Justice

Christians operate under the assumption that justice is objective, and that we live in a just world. To explain why justice is unfulfilled in the short-term (i.e., when bad things happen to good people and vice-versa), an afterlife is often necessary to meet this fulfillment in the long-term. However, the truth is rarely black or white, but a shades of grey. While justice may demand immortality to confer an eternity of punishments or rewards, justice is ultimately a human construct, which is why it has many (and often contradictory) definitions. Outside of human civilization, the world is harsh and unjust, a “nature red in tooth and claw.”

Argument from Near-Death Experiences

About 20 million Americans have had some kind of near-death experience, which convinces them of an afterlife. While this could be a hallucination, theologians argue that they are true since because of the invariance of the stories. Almost everyone has a similar experience, in that:

  • The “afterlife” does not resemble its popular portrayal in art. There are no golden streets, angels, clouds, harps, or halos.
  • The people involved tend to abstain from psychedelic drugs.
  • When allegedly out of their bodies, these people remain aware of their surroundings.
  • These people experience profound, positive personality changes. While they do not become saints, they:
    • Are convinced of life after death.
    • No longer fear death.
    • Have a strong sense of meaning, because they feel as though were sent back for a reason.
    • They take on a new sense of values, emphasizing truth/wisdom/knowledge and love/compassion.

However, research has shown that the dying brain experiences a flurry of activity and chemical dumps as it attempts to reboot itself and/or cope with damage. This damage model explains the profound personality changes due to the self’s dependence on the brain -- they are literally changed into different people. Likewise, the commonality of experiences is a further proof of materialism, since they all involve a common set of hardware (i.e., human brains) entering their failure modes, much like how different units of the same game console model will experience similar glitches. These near-death experiences are hallucinatory trips caused by the trauma of almost dying. A lack of oxygen causes the visual cortex nerves to fire in stripes, causing concentric circles or spirals to be seen (the “tunnel of light”).[2]

References

  1. D. Mills, Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism (Ulysses Press, 2006).
  2. M. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (W. H. Freeman & Co., 1997).