Every doctrine of the afterlife has run into the same problem, which is that of belief. For centuries the existence of life after death has been couched in religious terms, which necessitates believing in religion before the question of the afterlife can be approached. Is it possible to say something more firmly grounded than mere belief, which falls so short of certainty?
With the continuing decline of organized religion in developed countries, a strain of rational atheism has arisen that seems to have the backing of science. In this view, since we lack data from people who have died, there is no reason to abide by age-old myths concerning a promise of life after death. Fundamentally, the death and decay of the physical body points to the death of the mind, because to a physicalist the mind is a product of the brain.
The weakness in this viewpoint is twofold. First, it is founded on unproven assumptions. No one has proved that the brain produces the mind, only that brain activity parallels mental activity. By analogy, the heart beats faster when someone gets excited emotionally, but by no means does this prove that the heart produces emotions.
The second flaw is that receiving no data from people who have died begs the question. Entire theories of cosmology delve into string theories and the multiverse with no data and indeed no chance of gathering any data. There are certain boundaries that physical exploration cannot cross, but this obstacle doesn’t invalidate their existence.
Nor is atheism the only rational choice. The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal devised a famous wager in the face of his own doubt about God. A rational person, Pascal argued, should believe in God, because if God doesn’t exist, only a small loss is incurred by following the strictures of religion, while if God does exist, eternal life would be gained after death. The argument is just as rationally based as modern scientific atheism, and it is pertinent that Pascal was also a mathematician.
But both of these rational tactics do little more than speculate about probabilities. Belief, whatever its flaws, has proved comforting to those who have it. What’s needed is a view of the afterlife that is reassuring in the face of fear and not based on probabilities. For that, I believe the important factor is a credible theory of life, for without this, a theory of death has no basis.
The most credible theory of life that we have isn’t physical, which will surprise most people. (I’ve backed up this contention in a previous blog, “Should You Plan on Your Next Incarnation.”) Except among hardline materialists (which admittedly constitute the majority of scientists) it seems highly plausible that consciousness is woven into the fabric of creation; it is not a property that emerged from a more basic property.