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The Case for Life After Death

Life After Death

Can you prove life after death?

Whenever we argue about whether a thing can be proved, we should distinguish five different questions about that thing:

  1. Does it really exist or not? "To be or not to be, that is the question."
  2. If it does exist, do we know that it exists? A thing can obviously exist without our knowing it.
  3. If we know that it exists, can we be certain of this knowledge? Our knowledge might be true but uncertain; it might be "right opinion."
  4. If it is certain, is there a logical proof, a demonstration of why we have a right to be certain? There may be some certainties that are not logically demonstrable (e.g. my own existence, or the law of non-contradiction).
  5. If there is a proof, is it a scientific one in the modern sense of 'scientific'? Is it publicly verifiable by formal logic and/or empirical observation? There may be other valid kinds of proof besides proofs by the scientific method.

The fifth point is especially important when asking whether you can prove life after death. I think it depends on what kinds of proof you will accept. It cannot be proved like a theorem in Euclidean geometry; nor can it be observed, like a virus. For the existence of life after death is not on the one hand a logical tautology: its contradiction does not entail a contradiction, as a Euclidean theorem does. On the other hand, it cannot be empirically proved or disproved (at least before death) simply because by definition all experience before death is experience of life before death, not life after death.

If life after death cannot be proved scientifically, is it then intellectually irresponsible to accept it? Only if you assume that it is intellectually irresponsible to accept anything that cannot be proved scientifically. But that premise is self-contradictory (and therefore intellectually irresponsible)! You cannot scientifically prove that the only acceptable proofs are scientific proofs. You cannot prove logically or empirically that only logical or empirical proofs are acceptable as proofs. You cannot prove it logically because its contradiction does not entail a contradiction, and you cannot prove it empirically because neither a proof nor the criterion of acceptability are empirical entities. Thus scientism (the premise that only scientific proofs count as proofs) is not scientific; it is a dogma of faith, a religion.

1. No Reasonable Objection

The first reason for believing in life after death is simply that there is no compelling reason not to, no objection to it that cannot be answered. The two most frequent objections are as follows:

(a) Since there is no conclusive evidence for life after death, it is as irresponsible to believe it as to believe in UFOs, or alchemy. Perhaps we cannot disprove it; a universal negative always is difficult if not impossible to disprove. But if we cannot prove it either, it is wishful thinking, not evidence, that makes us believe it.

Now this objector either means by 'evidence' merely empirical evidence, or else any kind of evidence. If he means the latter, he ignores all the following proofs for life after death. There is a lot of evidence. If he means the former, he falls victim to the self-contradiction argument just mentioned. There is no empirical evidence that the only kind of evidence we should accept is empirical evidence.

In most supposedly scientific objections of this type, an impossible demand is made, overtly or covertly—a demand for scientific proof—and then the belief is faulted for not satisfying that demand. This is like arguing against the existence of God on the grounds that "I have not found Him in my test tube," or like the first Soviet cosmonauts' "argument" that they had found no God in outer space. Ex hypothesi, if God exists He is not found in a test tube or in space. That would make Him a chemical or a meteor. A taxi trip through Cleveland disproves quasars as well as a laboratory experiment disproves God, or brain chemistry disproves the soul or its immortality. The demand that non-empirical entities submit to empirical verification is a self-contradictory demand. The belief that something exists outside a system cannot be disproved by observing the behavior of that system. Goldfish cannot disprove the existence of their human owners by observing water currents in the bowl.

(b) The strongest positive argument against life after death is the observation of spirit at the mercy of matter. We see no more mental life when the brain dies. Even when it is alive, a blow to the head impairs thought. Consciousness seems related to matter as the light of a candle to the candle: once the fuel is used up, the light goes out. The body and its nervous system seem like the fuel, the cause; and immaterial activity, consciousness, seems like the effect. Remove the cause and you remove the effect. Consciousness, in other words, seems to be an epiphenomenon, an effect but not a cause, like the heat generated by the electricity running along a wire to an appliance, or the exhaust fumes from an engine's tailpipe.

What does the observed dependence of mind upon matter prove, if not the mortality of the soul? Wait. First, just what do we observe? We observe the physical manifestations of consciousness (e.g. speech) cease when the body dies. We do not observe the spirit cease to exist, because we do not observe the spirit at all, only its manifestations in the body. Observations of the body do not decide whether that body is an instrument of an independent spirit which continues to exist after its body-instrument dies, or whether the body is the cause of a dependent spirit which dies when its cause dies. Both hypotheses account for the observed facts.

When a body is paralyzed, the mind and will are still operative, though deprived of expression. Bodily death may be simply total paralysis. When you take a microphone away from a speaker, he can no longer be heard by the audience. But he is still a speaker. Body could be the soul's microphone. The dependence of soul on a body may be somewhat like the dependence of a ship on a dry-dock. Ships are not built on the open sea, but on dry-dock; but once they leave the dry-dock, they do not sink but become free floating ships. The body may be the soul's dry-dock, or (an even better metaphor) the soul's womb, and its death may be the soul's emergence from its womb.

What about the analogy of the candle? Even in the analogy, the light does not go out; it goes up. It is still traveling through space, observable from other planets. It 'goes out' as a child goes out to play; it is liberated.

But what of the need for a brain to think? The brain may not be the cause of thought but the stopping down, the 'reducing valve' for thought, as Bergson, James and Huxley suppose: an organ of forgetting rather than remembering, eliminating from the total field of consciousness all that serves no present purpose. Thus when the brain dies, more rather than less consciousness occurs: the floodgates come down. This would account for the familiar fact that dying people remember the whole of their past life in an instant with intense clarity, detail, and understanding.

In short, the evidence, even the empirical evidence, seems at least as compatible with soul immortality as with soul-mortality.

2. Argument From Authority

According to the medievals, the most logical of philosophers, "the argument from authority is the weakest of arguments." Nevertheless, it is an argument, a probability, a piece of evidence. Forty million Frenchmen can be wrong, but it is less likely than four Frenchmen being wrong.

  1. The first argument from authority for life after death is simply quantitative: "the democracy of the dead" votes for it. Almost all cultures before our own have strongly, even officially, believed in some form of it. Children naturally and spontaneously believe in it unless conditioned out of it.
  2. A second argument from authority is stronger because it is qualitative rather than quantitative: nearly all the sages have believed in it. We must not, of course, answer the challenge 'How do you know they were sages?' by saying 'Because they believed'; that would be begging the question pure and simple. But thinkers considered wise for other reasons have believed; why should this one belief of theirs be an exception to their wisdom?
  3. Finally, we have the supreme authority of the teachings of Jesus. Belief in life after death is central to His entire message, "the Kingdom of Heaven." Even if you do not believe He is the incarnate God, can you believe He is a naive fool?

3. Conservation of Energy

Arguments from reason are logically stronger than arguments from authority. The premises, or evidence, for arguments from reason can be taken from three sources, three levels of reality what is less than ourselves (Nature), ourselves (human life), or what is more than ourselves (God). Again, we move from the weaker to the stronger argument.

We could argue from the principle of the conservation of energy. We never observe any form of energy either created or destroyed, only transformed. The immortality of the soul seems to be the spiritual equivalent of the conservation of energy. If even matter is immortal, why not spirit?

4. The Nature of Man

The next class of arguments is taken from the nature of Man. What in us survives death depends on what is in us now. Death is like menopause. If a woman has in her identity nothing but her motherhood, then her identity has trouble surviving menopause. Life after menopause is a little like life after death.

4a. The simplest and most obvious of these arguments may be called Primitive Man's Argument from Dead Cow. Primitive Man has two cows. One dies. What is the difference between Dead Cow and Live Cow? Primitive man looks. (He's really quite bright.) There appears no material difference in size or weight immediately upon death. Yet there is an enormous difference; something is missing. What? Life, of course. And what is that? The answer is obvious to any intelligent observer whose head is not clouded with theories: life is what makes Live Cow breathe. Life is breath. (The word for 'soul', or 'life', and 'breath' is the same in many ancient languages.) Soul is not air, which is still in Dead Cow's lungs, but the power to move it.

Life, it is seen, is not a material thing, like an organ. It is the life of the organs, of the body; not that which lives but that by which we live. Now this source of life cannot die as the body dies: by the removal of the soul. Soul cannot have soul taken from it. What can die has life on loan; life does not have life on loan.

The 'catch' in this argument is that this 'soul' may in turn have its life on loan from a higher source, and transmit it to the body only after having been given life first. This is in fact the Biblical teaching, contrary to the Greek view of the soul's inherent, necessary and eternal immortality. God gives souls life, and souls can die if they refuse it. But in any case the soul survives the body's death.

4b. Another quite simple piece of evidence for the presence of an immaterial reality (soul) in us which is not subject to the laws of matter and its death, is the daily experience of real magic: the power of mind over matter. Every time I deliberately move my arm, I do magic. If there were no mind and will commanding the arm, only muscles; if there were muscles and a nervous system and even a brain but no conscious mind commanding them; then the arm could not rise unless it were lighter than air. When the body dies, its arms no longer move; the body reverts to obedience to merely material laws, like a sword dropped by a swordsman.

Even more simply stated, mind is not part of the system of matter, not measurable by material standards (How many inches long is your mind?) Therefore it need not die when the material body dies.

4c. A traditional Scholastic argument for an immortal soul is taken from the presence of two operations which are not operations of the body (1) abstract thinking, as distinct from external sensing and internal imagining; and (2) deliberate, rational willing, as distinct from instinctive desiring. My thought is not limited to sense images like pyramids; it can understand abstract universal principles like triangles. And my choices are not limited to my body's desires and instincts. I fast, therefore I am.

4d. Still another power of the soul which indicates that it is not a part or function of the body and therefore not subject to its laws and its mortality is the power to objectify its body. I can know a stone only because I am more than a stone. I can remember my past. (My present is alive; my past is dead.) I can know and love my body only because I am more than my body. As the projecting machine must be more than the images projected, the knower must be more than the objects known. Therefore I am more than my body.

4e. Still another argument from the nature of soul, or spirit, is that it does not have quantifiable, countable parts as matter does. You can cut a body in half but not a soul; you can't have half a soul. It is not extended in space. You don't cut an inch off your soul when you get a haircut.

Since soul has no parts, it cannot be decomposed, as a body can. Whatever is composed (of parts) can be decomposed: a molecule into atoms, a cell into molecules, an organ into cells, a body into organs, a person into body and soul. But soul is not composed, therefore not decomposable. It could die only by being annihilated as a whole. But this would be contrary to a basic law of the universe: that nothing simply and absolutely vanishes, just as nothing simply pops into existence with no cause.

But if the soul dies neither in parts (by decomposition) nor as a whole by annihilation, then it does not die.

4f. One last argument for immortality from the present experience of what soul is, comes from Plato. It is put so perfectly in the Republic that I quote it in its original form, adding only numbers to distinguish the steps of the argument:

  1. Evil is all that which destroys and corrupts. . .
  2. Each thing has its evil . . . for instance, ophthalmia for the eye, and disease for the whole body, mildew for corn and for wood, rust for iron . . .
  3. The natural evil of each thing . . . destroys it, and if this does not destroy it, nothing else can . . .
    (a) for I don't suppose good can ever destroy anything,
    (b) nor can what is neither good nor evil,
    (c) and it is certainly unreasonable . . . that the evil of something else would destroy anything when its own evil does not.
  4. Then if we find something in existence which has its own evil but which can only do it harm yet cannot dissolve or destroy it, we shall know at once that there is no destruction for such a nature. . . .
  5. the soul has something which makes it evil . . . injustice, intemperance, cowardice, ignorance. Now does any one of these dissolve and destroy it? . . .
  6. Then, since it is not destroyed by any evil at all, neither its own evil nor foreign evil, it is clear that the soul must of necessity be . . . immortal.

5. The Nature of God

We turn now to a stronger class of arguments: not from the nature of Man but from the nature of God; not 'because of what I am, I must be immortal' but 'because of what God is, I am immortal.' A possible weakness of this type of argument, of course, is that it does not convince anyone not already convinced, because it presupposes the existence of God, and those who admit God usually admit life after death already, while those who deny the one usually deny the other as well. Yet, though apologetically weak, the argument is theoretically potent because it gives the real, the true reason or cause why we survive death: God wills it.

5a. We could first argue from God's justice. Since God by definition is just, His dealings with us must be just, at least in the long run, in the total picture. ("The long run" is the answer to the problem of evil, the apparently unjust distribution of suffering.) The innocent suffer and the wicked flourish here; therefore 'here' cannot be 'the long run,' the total picture. There must be justice after death to compensate for injustice before death. (This is the point of Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus.)

5b. The next argument, from God's love, is stronger than the one from His justice because love is more essential to God. Love is God's essence; justice is one of His attributes—one of Love's attributes.

Love is "the fulfillment of the whole law." Each of the Ten Commandments is a way of loving. "Thou shalt not kill" means "Love does not kill." If you love someone, you don't kill him. But God is love. Therefore God does not kill us. We want human life to triumph over death in the end because we love; is God less loving than we? Is He a hypocrite? Does He refuse to practice what He preaches?

Only if God does not love us or is impotent to do what He wills, do we die forever. That is, only if God is bad or weak—only if God is not God—is death the last word.

6. The Nature of the World

Whether the premises be taken from the nature of the world, of man, or of God, the last three arguments were all deductive, arguments by rational analysis. More convincing for most people are arguments from experience. These can be subdivided into two classes: arguments from experiences everyone, or nearly everyone, shares; and arguments from extraordinary or unusual experiences. The first class includes:

  1. The argument from the demand for ultimate moral meaning, or long-range justice (similar to the argument from God's justice, except that this time we do not assume the existence of God, only the validity of our essential moral instinct)—this is essentially Kant's argument;
  2. The argument from our demand for ultimate purpose, for a meaningful end, or adequate final cause—this argument is parallel, in the order of final causality and within the psychological area, to the traditional cosmological arguments for the existence of God from effect to a first, uncaused cause in the order of efficient causality and within the cosmological area;
  3. The argument from the principle that every innate desire reveals the presence of its desired object (hunger indicates the existence of food, curiosity knowledge, etc.) coupled with the discovery of an innate desire for eternity, or something more than time can offer-this is C. S. Lewis' favorite argument.
  4. The argument from the validity of love, which insists on the intrinsic, indispensable value of the other, the beloved—if love is sighted and not blind and if it is absurd that the indispensable is dispensed with, then death does not dispense with us, for love declares that we are indispensable;
  5. Finally, the argument from the presence of a person, who is not a thing (object) and therefore need not be removed when the body-object is removed-the I detects a Thou not subject to the death of the It.

From one point of view, these five arguments are the weakest of all, for they presuppose an epistemological access to reality which can easily be denied as illusory. There is no purely formal or empirical proof, e.g., that love's instinctive perception of the intrinsic value of the beloved is true. Further, each concludes not with the simple proposition 'we are immortal' but with the disjunctive proposition 'either reality is absurd or we are immortal.' Finally, each is less a demonstration than an almost-immediate perception: in valuing, purposing, longing, loving, or presencing one sees the immortality of the person.

These are five spiritual senses, and when one looks along them rather than at them, when one uses them rather than scrutinizing them, when they are innocent until proven guilty rather than proven innocent, one sees. But when one does not take this attitude, when one begins with Occam's razor, or Descartes' methodic doubt, one simply does not see. They are less arguments from experience than experiences themselves of the immortal soul.

7. Extraordinary Experience

Three arguments from unusual or extraordinary experience are:

  1. The argument from the experience of medically 'dead' and resuscitated patients, all of whom, even those formerly skeptical, are utterly convinced of the truth of their 'out-of-the-body' existence and their survival of bodily death. To outside observers there necessarily remains the possibility of doubt; to all who have had the experience, there is none. It is no more deceptive than waking up in the morning. You may dream that you are awake and in fact be dreaming, but once you are really awake you are in no doubt. Unfortunately, this waking sense of certainty can only be experienced, not publicly proved.
  2. A similar sense of reality attaches to an experience apparently even more common than the out-of-the-body experience. Shortly after a loved one dies (most usually a spouse), the survivor often has a sudden, unexpected and utterly convincing sense of the real here-and-now presence of the dead one. It is not a memory, or a wish, or an image from the imagination. It is not usually accompanied by an image at all. But it is utterly convincing to the experiencer. Only to one who trusts the experiencer is the experience transferable as evidence, however. And that link can be denied without absurdity. Again, it is a very strong and convincing experience, but not a convincing proof.
  3. What would be a convincing proof from experience? If we could only put our hands into the wounds of a dead man who had risen again! The most certain assurance of life after death for the Christian is the historical, literal resurrection of Christ. The Christian believes in life after death not because of an argument, first of all, but because of a witness. The Church is that witness; 'apostolic succession' means first of all the chain of witnesses beginning with eyewitnesses: "We have been eyewitnesses of His resurrection. . . and we testify (witness) to you." This is the answer to the skeptic who asks: "What do you know for sure about life after death anyway? Have you ever been there? Have you come back to tell us?" The Christian reply is: "No, but I have a very good Friend who has. I believe Him, and I follow Him not only through life but also through death. Come along!"

Originally published at PeterKreeft.com. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Vine and Branch)

Dr. Peter Kreeft

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Dr. Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and a noted Catholic apologist and philosopher. He is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 60 books including Making Sense Out of Suffering (Servant, 1986); Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (Ignatius, 1988); Catholic Christianity (Ignatius, 2001); The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion (IVP, 2002); and The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings (Ignatius, 2005). Many of Peter's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Find dozens of audio talks, essays, and book excerpts at his website, PeterKreeft.com.

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