March 19, 2007
Proof of the afterlife
Recently a friend of mine posed an interesting question. She said that none of us really know for sure if there is life after death or not, although all of us have our own beliefs. She wondered how differently we would live our lives if we could have conclusive proof either way. This led to an interesting discussion about what would constitute proof in such situations.
This brings us back to the whole problem of what constitutes proof in such cases. The negative is particularly tricky. As far as I can see, to prove that life after death does not exist, the only thing we can have is the absence of proof that life after death does exist. I cannot see how there could be any other kind of proof for such a thing and would be genuinely interested in hearing from anyone (especially from those who do believe in the afterlife) what kind of evidence would convince them beyond a shadow of a doubt that no afterlife existed.
As far as I can tell, the very fact that there has been no convincing proof for thousands of years that life exists after death is all the proof we are ever going to have that it does not exist. So in my opinion, having convincing proof that there is no life after death would not change people's behavior much, since that is pretty much the state of affairs that currently exists. People may say that they believe in it but they really have no basis for believing it and I suspect that its absence would not, deep down, really surprise them. It is only having convincing proof that the afterlife does exist that would change anything dramatically.
Notice that I say 'convincing' proof. There are people who claim to have had near-death experiences where they saw something of the after life. Others claim to talk to or even see dead people. But none of these things really constitute proof because they are all individual reports in the absence of corroborating witnesses. There is a whole range of completely natural explanations that can explain the testimonies of such people, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.
A real proof of the existence of the afterlife would have to consist of something incontrovertible, that simply could not be denied. If asked to be more specific, I would say that it would have to consist (say) of an event in which someone who was well known and whom we know was definitely dead (say Albert Einstein) appeared in public and spoke to a large number of people who had no vested interest in collectively lying. There would also have to be tangible evidence of the event occurring. Furthermore, to rule out any chance of fraud or misunderstanding, this dead person should promise to reappear at a designated time and place under conditions that rule out trickery so that any and all skeptics could be on hand to check the phenomenon out. Albert should also be able to bring along other well known people from the world beyond, like say Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If something like that happened, I think everyone would be convinced.
We have never had anything even close to such a level of proof. So basically, the current state of affairs is such that there has been no convincing proof of the existence of an afterlife. That means that we have all the proof we can possibly get that there is no afterlife.
The only way that people can sustain a belief in the afterlife given the current absence of any evidence in its favor is to argue that there must be an impenetrable barrier that prevents any kind of communication at all between the afterlife world and this one, with no exceptions. In other words, there is a one-time opening between the two worlds that allows the souls or spirits of dead people to cross over but the door closes immediately afterwards preventing any return or communication. But this implies that everyone who claims to speak with the dead is either a fraud or delusional and that all the supposed encounters that people claim to have had with the dead are false. So we are back to having zero evidence for the existence of an afterlife.
If we want to believe at least some of the reports of dead people having communicated with the living, then we have to allow just some people to be able to speak to just a few of the dead. That means the barrier separating the two worlds can be crossed and this raises a whole host of problems. Why is it that the dead don't contact us more often? Why doesn't Thomas Jefferson drop by for regular chats and maybe give the current occupant of the White House some desperately needed advice on what the US Constitution says? Why don't all murdered people whose deaths were unsolved come back and tell us who their killers were?
In fact, believing in an afterlife is much harder than believing in a god. After all, with god, one is presumably dealing with a single entity. People always have the option of assigning inscrutability to god's actions and say that for reasons beyond our ken, god has chosen to keep his/her existence unproven except for highly oblique hints.
But with the afterlife, if it exists, there must be billions of dead souls out there. It is hard to argue that all of them are determined to prevent us from finding out for sure that they exist. Why would they care? Is it a crime in that world for someone to show themselves openly in our world? Is this other world like a prison in which just a few dead people are given permission to occasionally speak to a few living people under extremely controlled circumstances?
Given the overwhelming logical difficulties with postulating the existence of such a spirit world, one wonders why people continue to believe in it. One reason that I can think of is that people have a deep sense of existential loneliness that makes it comforting to think that they are surrounded by the spirits of dead friends and family and that they will join them in the future. It is such a deep psychological need that it overcomes all reason and logic.
POST SCRIPT: Citizen Kane
The classic film Citizen Kane will be screened on Tuesday, March 20 at 7:15pm in Strosacker Auditorium at Case Western Reserve University. It is free and open to the public. (Thanks to Heidi for the info.)