Augustine, Keith (Ed.). The Myth of an Afterlife. Rowand and Littlefield. 2015.
In part thanks to the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, over the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion about whether or not God exists. But, I have the hunch that, what people really care about, is not whether there is an invisible big guy up in the sky, but rather, whether they will keep on living after their deaths. I would think that, for most people in our times, Buddhist belief (afterlife without God) is more appealing than Sadducee (or, for that matter, most Jewish) belief (God without the afterlife).
Unfortunely, in the public sphere, there has not been a great deal of rational discussion about the afterlife. It’s mostly about NDE testimonies and debunking, or the 23 minutes in Hell, but not about well-thought arguments. This volume, edited by Keith Augustine, can serve as a definite guide to the arguments and counterarguments regarding the afterlife, although, of course, written from a skeptic perspective. This is a massive book (30 long chapters), but Augustine does a fine job of outlining the arguments and the plan in the Introduction. The reader is advised to read the Introduction, and then, if any argument catches his/her special interest, he/she can further fill the details by reading particular chapters. In what follows; I will address mostly Augustine’s Introduction, assuming his text is representative of the rest of the book; I admit I have not read the whole book.
Augustine frequently argues that the case for the afterlife must be made on a probabilistic basis. Thus, even if survivalists (those who believe we survive death) may come around some arguments, and claim that it is at least possible to survive, that will not suffice. The evidence against the afterlife is massive, and that should tip the balance definitely. I agree, but as I understand it, many of the survivalists only attempt to defend themselves against conceptual problems. Authors such as Peter Van Inwagen do not claim to prove that God switches bodies upon death (in order to preserve the original body for the end-times), but rather, that the doctrine of resurrection has a way of coming around the conceptual problems that are usually labeled against it.
Augustine likewise has little patience for arguments of the type “God can do it”, or “it’s just a miracle”. That is not a rational explanation of how things happen. Again, I agree. But, one could make an indirect argument in favor of the afterlife. If God exists, He would not allow his creatures to perish, inasmuch He is omnipotent and omnibenevolent. So, the prospect for an afterlife may hinge upon God’s existence. Proof of God may be extended as proof of the afterlife. I doubt the existence of God, but it seems to me this is an important point to address in a discussion about the afterlife. However, none of the chapters in this book discuss the existence of God. This is understandable (God is not the subject matter of this volume), but I insist, the argument could be made that, by proving God’s existence, one proves the afterlife.
An important part of the book is concerned with dualism: the idea that we are made up of a body and a soul. Augustine and the authors point out the typical objections: there is an obvious connection between mental states and brain states; how can a bodiless soul perceive and communicate?; how does the soul interact with the body?; how is the law of conservation of energy not broken?; etc. I agree these are insurmountable difficulties, but it must be acknowledged that dualists have arguments of their own, and they are not fully addressed in this book. Dualists may raise questions such as: What selective advantage could conscience offer in evolution?; if you can imagine a disembodied soul (as Descartes did), doesn’t that prove that body and soul are not identical?
I would have welcomed a consideration of Richard Swinburne’s thought experiment to prove the existence of the soul. Person A’s brain is split in two, resulting in two persons, B and C. Which one is identical the original person? Swinburne argues we cannot know who is identical to A, but we can be sure one of them is. This, Swinburne claims, is evidence of the existence of the soul, for, unlike the brain, the soul is indivisible. I am not convinced at all, but some refutation would be most welcome.
Augustine also presents objections against a second model of the afterlife: astral body survival. Unlike the soul, the astral body is theoretically visible, yet, where is it? How much does it weigh?, and one of my favorite objections: when ghosts wear clothes, are those clothes astral, too? Augustine and his peers do a fine job of warning that, the popular Hollywoodesque conception of the afterlife, is much closer to astral bodies than to souls.
Augustine then tackles the resurrection model. Again, he very aptly presents the usual objections: how can God reassemble the same bodies of all people who ever lived, if most likely, we share at least some atoms with someone else? God could make a replica, but then, would it be the same person as someone who previously lived? If God can make on replica, couldn’t He make more than one? In that case, wouldn’t this prove that none of those replicas are in fact identical to the original one? In this regard, I have a minor complaint. None of the authors address Nozick’s closest-continuer theory. According to this theory, if God makes more than one replica of the original body, then, in effect, none would be identical to the original person; but if God makes only one replica, in the absence of competitors, that sole replica would in fact be identical to the original one. I find this a very counter intuitive theory, but Nozick is a big name in philosophy, and his views could have been addressed.
Augustine accepts that God could make a replica that is psychologically continuous to the original person. Derek Parfitt famously argued that, for him that would be good enough to be content in the afterlife. Augustine, however, begs to differ. According to him, what matters is survival, not just psychological continuity. My claim is that this is a very complex issue. Apparently, yes, Augustine is right, and what matters is survival, not just psychological continuity. But, Parfitt has some very disturbing thought experiments that would make us think that, even in this terrestrial life, survival is not guaranteed. In Parfitt’s view, we cannot be assured that we are even the same person that ate breakfast two days ago. Thus, if we are apparently able to cope with the fact that we may not be the same person we thought we were, it should not be much of a problem to be in heaven with psychological continuity regarding our present life, but unsure about whether or not we are actually the same person.
Another section of the book is dedicated to conceptual problems of Heaven and Hell. Augustine complains about the injustice of these doctrines. Why would someone receive eternal bliss for temporal virtues, or eternal punishment for temporal sin? I agree this applies to Hell (why an eternal punishment for a finite sin?), but where is the harm in receiving extra-bliss? One may object to extra-punishment, but I am not sure the same could be said of extra-bliss. As for infinite punishment, there is a typical scholastic response that Augustine does not address (but, maybe some of the authors do address it; again, I admit I have not read the 700 pages of this book): inasmuch as the offended party is infinite (God), justice requires the punishment to be infinite as well.
Furthermore, some Christian apologists claim that Hell is not really a punishment, but rather, an affirmation of choice: the person who goes to Hell has decided to move away from God, by living in sin, and God satisfies that desire. I find this argument deeply flawed, but it could have been addressed in the book, given the fact that apologists such as C.S. Lewis made it very popular.
Augustine also points out the problem of moral luck: some people, under different circumstances, would have behaved differently, so where is the justice in punishment? I agree this is a major problem, but this also applies to terrestrial punishment: why should we punish a drunk driver who killed three kids, but not a drunk driver who, out of sheer luck, did not kill anyone? Nevertheless, we still punish the actual deeds.
Augustine also wonders what good is hellish punishment, if there is no second chance? What’s the purpose of Hell, if no one is going to learn any lesson from it? If one accepts solely a consequentialist account of ethics, then yes, Hell is unjust on these grounds. But, if one accepts a deontological account of ethics, then punishment is intrinsically good, regardless of its consequences. And, it seems to me that, if God exists and He is just (again, a big “if”), then His justice would require punishment of bad deeds. Augustine assumes ethical consequentalism, but this may be disputed among many ethicists.
There are other problems addressed by the authors. How can people be happy in Heaven, if some of their relatives are in Hell? Most apologists I have read, just bite the bullet, and assume that, being next to God somehow drives that unhappiness away. There is yet another objection raised by Augustine: if God is omniscient and knew that people would sin and go to Hell, why did He create us in the first place? That is a tough one, and I don’t think any theologian has offered a good response.
The doctrines of karma and reincarnation are problematic as well, and Augustine aptly raises objections. How can we be justly punished for deeds committed in previous life that we do not remember? What good is it to learn from punishment, if we will not remember the lesson in the next life? Furthermore, if the world is just in virtue of karma, helping someone is an act of injustice, for we would be altering the karmic justice. In fact, if whatever happens, is just, then any psychopath can be an executor of cosmic justice.
The final part of the book is devoted to alleged evidence for survival. Apparitions of the dead, Augustine believes, are most likely hallucinations, and in some cases, collective hallucinations driven by social contagion. I would advice more caution on this issue. It is still a matter of dispute among psychologists, whether or not collective hallucinations do in fact occur. Be that as it may, Augustine claims that most apparitions are conditioned by expectations. This is certainly true, but there might be some exceptions. Christian apologists, for example, claim that Jesus’ apparitions to the disciples (in one occasion, at least to 500 at the same time, according to I Corinthians) were not expected, as 1st Century Jews expected resurrection only during the endtimes.
I am not at all persuaded by these apologetic arguments, but I think the book should have included some consideration of Christian apologists who claim to prove historically that Jesus rose from the dead. For, here, they could argue as with the existence of God: they could indirectly prove the survival hypothesis, by proving the resurrection of Jesus. If it is proven that Jesus resurrected, then there is hope.
Out of body experiences and Near Death experiences are given their due in this volume. And, as one may expect, the authors’ assessment is not positive. There is a high degree of cultural arbitrariness in these experiences. Reincarnation cases do not hold water, either. Cases of children who allegedly “remember” past lives, are either equivocal, or just plain fraudulent. Parents may nourish in their kids an identity with deceased relatives, or information between the deceased person’s family and the child’s family may be leaked to the child himself. Researchers have been known to use leading questions (in order to confirm their biases), or the children may just having fantasies akin to “invisible friend” role-play of Western societies.
Likewise, the world of mediumship has been notoriously fraudulent, and this is aptly addressed by Augustine and his peers. Mediums have many tricks to give the impression that they know something they could not have known by natural means. However, there is a very strange case in the history of mediumship: the so-called “Palm Sunday” correspondence in the 19th Century. Allegedly, a spirit communicated with mediums from many countries without each other knowing about it, using encrypted and complex references to Classical literature. This case has never been satisfactorily debunked, but as Augustine well argues, the case for the afterlife must be built on a probabilistic basis, and a single odd phenomenon is surely not enough against the great of evidence counter to the survival hypothesis.
At any rate, Augustine reminds us that there are plausible ways of testing whether or not there is an afterlife. In fact, these tests have been done, and not a single case has offered us confirmatory evidence. Furthermore, it is not altogether clear that a medium’s success in conveying information he/she could not have known through normal means, is evidence of an afterlife. There is the possibility that the medium has telepathic abilities, and he/she received that information, not from a deceased person, but rather, telepathically from other living persons. Needless to say, paranormal phenomena present problems of their own.
The present volume, then, is a great resource for anyone interested in one of the greatest question humanity has ever asked: is death truly the end? Its chapters make a convincing case against the survival hypothesis. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence against it, people still cling to afterlife beliefs. Why? In the Foreword to this book, Steve Steward-Williams offers some hypotheses: maybe we are prey to wishful thinking: most of us want to keep on living; maybe these ideas are good for society as social glue and social control; maybe we are genetically hardwired to believe these things.
Whatever the right hypothesis may be, it is a fact that there is great uneasiness about death. Some anthropologists claim this is just a Western concern (for some strange reason, they always point out Mexico as a death-friendly country), but I doubt it. The fear of death is universal. And, despite being a well-researched and massive book, there is a sense of incompleteness in this volume: none of the authors address the issue of how to live with the knowledge that we will not survive; none addressed the question, what is the meaning of life without an afterlife?; or, why should I be moral if there is no post-mortem reward?
It will surely be argued that this is a book about facts, not about existentialist philosophy. But, religious beliefs can be very pragmatist. And, the common person may assume Miguel de Unamuno’s approach: reason may tell us there is no afterlife, but desperation is avoided only by assuming so. Thus, before confronting us with a mountain of evidence against the afterlife, I would have welcomed a chapter assuring the reader that life does have meaning without an afterlife. Were that chapter included, however, I personally estimate it would have been one of the most difficult to write; personally, I sometimes struggle to find meaning in a Godless world.