Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Life After Death

Life after death is (in my opinion) one of the most interesting aspects of the course, just because I am so strongly opposed to the idea. Also, there's no Aquinas. That makes me happy.

Pascal's Wager is the idea that, if you don't know whether there is an afterlife, it makes logical sense for you to believe in God than not to believe. At best, you'll be saved from eternal damnation. At worst, either a) nothing will happen when you die or b) you'll go to hell. So why not believe in God?

  • This goes against the idea of an omniscient God - if God is all knowing, surely he'd know if someone was only believing in him as a back up plan?
He's looking right into your soul... if you had one
Richard Dawkins comes in and, of course, openly rejects the idea of an afterlife, referring to it as:

"the delusional 'next world'"

He calls the idea illogical and implausible. So why do people believe in life after death?
  1. Because religion provides comfort?
  2. Because people live their lives in fear of death? Freud would certainly argue that the afterlife is just a human construct to escape the fear of death
And, more importantly, what is life after death? Is it a spiritual world? Do we live on through the soul, brain, mind, memories, body, all of these or something else entirely?

Some argue that life after death exists on this planet, through our own offspring - our own life after death. Others suggest that we live on after death through what we leave behind. So Shakespeare, for example, has been doing pretty well, because he still 'lives on' through his work.

Epicurus takes a 'who cares?' approach, stating:

"Death ... is of no concern to us, for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist."

This is similar to the view held by writer Mark Twain, who argues that a fear of death is ridiculous - we were 'dead' for millions of years before we were born, so why should we fear it?

Antony Flew, an atheist (for most of his life, anyway), said that surviving death is a contradiction:

"Can a man witness his own funeral?"

Kant thought that upshots were
his best angle
However, Immanuel Kant argued that there has to be an afterlife for his moral argument for the existence of God to work. He said that there must be an afterlife where morally good people will be rewarded with summum bonum (ultimate happiness).

Kant said that we ought to achieve summum bonum, so that means we can achieve it - and since we can't achieve it on earth, we must be able to achieve it in the afterlife.

Because we're not always rewarded in this life, we should postulate God's existence and an afterlife to achieve moral justice. Without God, Kant says, doing good would be futile. So who knows what Kant would be out doing if he wasn't scared of God watching him do it.
  • Kant's argument from justice may be idealistic - it is based on an assumption
  • Some argue that life after death cannot compensate for the unfairness in this life
  • Many refer to Kant's argument as a cop-out
  • Ought doesn't always mean can - if a teacher says 'you ought to get an A in this exam', it doesn't necessarily mean that you can get the A
One of the most integral aspects of life after death is the belief in a soul. What is a soul? Most people refer to a certain definition that is best described through the analogy of an SD card in a camera - it is the core of your person, but can be removed and taken elsewhere while still holding all the information you want it to.

John Locke questioned whether it is the soul or body that makes us human. He gave the story of a prince and a cobbler who switch minds - are they still the same person? Who is who?

The Monist View

The monist view states that we are physical bodies only. Once we die, that's it. Emotions are simply psycho-chemical reactions and nothing more.

Once again, Richard Dawkins is a big advocate of this. As an evolutionary biologist, he argues that everything that we are links back to the brain. We are simply survival machines, Dawkins says, and we exist only to pass on our genes:

"There is no spirit-driven life force"

"Life is just bytes and bytes of digital information"

He states that belief in the soul/life after death is just wish fulfilment for those who fear death.

Richard Swinburne rejects Dawkins's view, stating that the body and soul are separate and that the soul lives on after we die. He said that the most important aspects of our personality cannot be explained in physical terms.

Another monist is Gilbert Ryle, who said that the idea of a soul is like:

"The ghost in the machine"

The Dualist View

Plato's response to the question 'where is
the world of Forms?'
Plato was one of the earliest dualists, and the differentiation between the body and soul links closely to his differentiation between the world of Forms and the world of appearances. The soul has access to the world of Forms and has objective knowledge, thanks to our ability to reason

The body, however, gains knowledge not through reason but through the senses. Plato said that since senses change, they cannot always be trusted. This leads to his overwhelmingly pessimistic view of the body, which he called:

"The prison of the soul"

He calls the body weak because of its desires and flaws, and says that it gets in the way of who we truly are and detracts from our power of thinking. 

Plato said that our souls are in the spiritual world while our bodies are stuck in the physical world - we should do our best to break free of the physical world.

Regarding the soul, Plato states that it has three distinct parts:
  1. REASON - helps us work out right from wrong, helps us see the world of Forms and helps us gain knowledge
  2. EMOTION - gives us the ability to love, be courageous etc. - but can lead to recklessness
  3. APPETITE - makes us look after the physical needs of our bodies - but can lead to hedonism
Plato helpfully said that the soul is both simple and complex, and is like a diamond - it is one thing but can be viewed from many different angles. We function correctly when we have all three parts of the soul in balance.

As to what happens after death, Plato tells a story which he refers to as the Myth of Er. In the tale, Er, a soldier, dies on the battlefield (which at least tells us that Plato knows how to start a good story). Twelve days later he returns to his fellow soldiers to tell them of his experience. Er says that souls are judged; morally good people are rewarded, while immoral people are punished. Souls can choose their new life before being reborn.

Criticisms of Plato
  • How do we know when all three parts of the soul are in balance?
  • The theory doesn't match with out idea of being a unified whole
  • Relies of the assumption of the world of Forms
Aristotle telling Plato to back off

I would have put Aristotle under the monist view, because he makes some good monist points, but then he later goes on to sort of change his mind, which he can apparently get away with.

Aristotle believes in the soul, saying that:

"To attain any assured knowledge of the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world"

He refers to the soul as a stamp in wax - yes, just like the one you wanted to see on your Hogwarts letter. The shape is imprinted on the wax just as our souls are imprinted in us - the two cannot be separated.

The soul gives the body life, and there are different types of soul. A human soul gives human life, an animal soul gives animal life, and so on and so forth. This is similar to the Platonic idea of the soul giving us true knowledge.

Aristotle said that all living things possess characteristics, as listed here (from most important to least important):
  1. Intellect
  2. Locomotion (ability to move)
  3. Desire
  4. Perception
  5. Nutrition
So a flower, for example, which has a vegetative soul, can only access two characteristics - nutrition and perception (perception because it reacts to light).

Animals can achieve characteristics 2-5, while we can achieve all 5. Our ability to reason sets us aside from all other life forms, Aristotle says. 

Aristotle called the soul the function of the body, just like the function of an axe is to chop. Aristotle also said that the soul dies when we die.

Well, he says that but then he sort of goes off and thinks something else instead. Originally he said that body and soul are inseparable (come on, Aristotle, you had the wax example and everything), but later argued that rational thought may be separated from the body after death. While emotions and sensations cannot survive beyond death, perhaps mental activity can. This is similar to the Platonic view that the soul is more important than the body, and may be able to exceed death.

  • The most obvious criticism of Aristotle is the contradictory nature of his argument - it seems both monist and dualist. Anthony Kenny states that:
"He is unclear about what happens to the soul."

The Christian View

Most Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ confirms the afterlife. Christians believe that souls are unique to humans (differing slightly from Aristotle's view) and that our souls are judged once we die. Good souls go to heaven, bad souls go to hell. 

In 1 Corinthians 15:12, Paul states that Christians can all go to heaven, where there souls are given a:

"heavenly body"

By God. 
  • However, his only reason for believing in resurrection is that it is what the religion is based on:
"If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless"
  • Are you still the same person if your soul is transferred to a different body?
  • Contradicts with the monist view
  • Incoherent if we do not have a soul
According to Christianity, how can we get to heaven? Does it depend on what we do or who we are?

Matthew 19 states that:

"If you want to enter life, obey the commandments"

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God"

So basically, obey the commandments and give to the poor and you'll go to heaven - this suggests that getting to heaven depends on what we do.

Similarly, in Matthew 25 it is said that those who are kind and help those in need are helping God as well as the poor, and so will gain eternal life. Once again it seems that we get to heaven depending on what we do.

However, in Luke 13, it appears that getting to heaven depends on who we are. It states that people who believe in God before he is presented to them will get to heaven:

"through the narrow door"

Basically this means that the few people who believe in God before he turns up will definitely go to heaven. 

Similarly, in John 3 it is stated that:

"Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life"

Once again it seems that getting to heaven is dependent on who we are and what we believe, not on what we do.
  • So which is correct? How do we get to heaven? The Bible is contradictory

The Judaism is basically just the Old Testament. Judaism mentions life after death as a possibility, but it is not hugely prominent in the faith. In Judaism, it is believed that resurrection will happen once the Messiah arrives - some believe this resurrection to be spiritual, while others believe it to be bodily.


The afterlife (or Paradise) is integral to the Islamic faith. Muslims believe that this life is a test - a preparation for the next life. Islam argues down the Kantian route that there must be an afterlife for there to be justice for those who suffer in this life. Muslims see this life as a battle - or 'greater jihad' - which we must go through before reaching Paradise.

Disembodied Existence
Swinburne making sure that his brain isn't
distracting him too much

Disembodied existence is the belief that we can survive without a body, and is advocated by Richard Swinburne. 

Swinburne says that surviving outside the body is a logical concept - because we can imagine it, it is possible (I know, I know). He also says that our use of language points to body and soul being separate; we say 'I have a body', not 'I am a body'.
  • Brian Davies criticises Swinburne's view that just because we imagine something it is therefore possible. He calls disembodied existence an illogical concept

Swinburne draws a line between thoughts and actions, suggesting that consciousness can exist independently of the body.
  • But consciousness comes from the brain - that's scientific fact. But Swinburne doesn't really care
H. H. Price agrees with Swinburne, stating that the afterlife is like having a dream; it feels real to us and we have experiences, but we are not bound by time or space. Price suggests that the mental images of the afterlife are so strong that we don't even know we are dead.
  • But dreams come from the brain - without the brain we have no mental processes or identity to fall back on
  • This view is inconsistent with the Biblical belief of resurrection
  • What about those who do not - or cannot - dream? Is there no afterlife for them?
  • Dreams are made up of experiences - so what if someone's life is made up of suffering? Does this mean that they will be haunted by their experiences even in the afterlife?
    • Price kindly says that he never stated that the afterlife would be pleasant for everyone
Near Death Experiences

Some argue that near death experiences point towards life after death. Raymond Moody researched NDE patients and found that their experiences were all similar:
  1. An awareness of death
  2. Outer body experiences
  3. Peace
  4. Sense of travelling
Moody also found that none of the experiences were linked to a particular religion.
  • But surely this could point to a common feature of the brain as opposed to evidence for an afterlife?
  • How do you clarify near death experiences?
  • Some NDEs may be products of what people subconsciously pick up on when unconscious
  • People may expect to experience certain things - a sense of wish fulfilment
  • Lots of people claim to have had NDEs - but they are still in the minority

Reincarnation is the belief that when we die, our souls transfer to a new body. There are two main religions that focus on reincarnation:


Hindus belief that each person has a 'self', or atman. The atman is eternal and seeks unity with God. The atman goes through a constant cycle of death and rebirth, with the atman becoming attached to different bodies each time.

The process of rebirth is controlled by the laws of karma. Good actions leads to good consequences and vice versa. These karmic fruits then stay with us in the next life and determine what our next life will be like - so people are responsible for their own suffering.

Through cycles, the atman develops wisdom until it eventually reaches moksha - or union with God.


Buddhists believe that there is no soul, choosing instead to believe in the concept of anatta (or soullessness). The anatta states that we are made up of five strands (or skandhas) which are woven together to make a person who attracts karma.

Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism teaches that because there is no atman/soul, karmic fruits cannot attach to anything and so they do not pass through the cycles of rebirth. The person in the next body is neither the same as you nor different to you. It is like the analogy of a candle being lit and the flame being used to light another candle. The two flames are neither the same nor different - the energy passes from one to the other.

Strengths of Reincarnation
  1. Stevenson found cases of children who claimed to be reincarnated, and spoke in such detail about past lives that they couldn't have been making it up
Weaknesses of Reincarnation
  • Inconsistent with the teachings of other major religions
  • Hick criticises Stevenson for taking his examples from places where reincarnation is a widely accepted belief
  • Just because someone may have similar memories to someone who is deceased does not mean that the two are the same person
  • Some argue that if you are in different bodies, you are different people
  • Karma is arguably unfair in punishing someone for something that they won't remember doing from a past life

That's it. Hope it helps!


  1. These are so helpful thanks! The photo captions are brilliant too :')

  2. Who is 'Stevenson'? - Strengths of Reincarnation

  3. Who is 'Stevenson'? - Strengths of Reincarnation

  4. Really helpful! It would be good to see some ethics topics on here too, e.g. Virtue Ethics, Natural Moral Law and Deontology, or Critiques of Morality :)

  5. so so helpful! Thank you so much!!