What are the philosophical problems associated with belief in life after death?
In any discussion of life after death, the relationship between body and soul is crucial. According to one view the soul is active in, but ultimately independent of, the body, and survives when the body ‘perishes’. In the other view, the soul and body are made for each other, and eventually become reunited by way of bodily resurrection. The latter view is more in line with biblical tradition, which saw body and soul forming a single unity, and is confirmed for ‘believers’ in the resurrection of Jesus.
Both views are challenged by atheistic materialism, which holds that body and soul are two sides of a single coin, one merely the principle of the other, and that both perish together on the death of the individual. Plato put forward a dualistic account, in which the body and soul are two separate entities. Although they combine in a human life, the soul lives on immortality after the death of the body. Plato’s dualism is consistent with his understanding of reality. He gave an illustration of this in his ‘allegory of the cave’: the majority of us are like prisoners in a cave, where shadows cast by a fire are seen projected on a wall.
The prisoners in the cave think that the shadows are the full reality, all there is. Only by making the effort can one escape from the cave and discover the truth. Then one can see by the light of the sun, and realise the difference between ‘illusion’ and ‘reality’: Plato argues that this applies in our everyday existence, and that true reality (and knowledge) exists in the ‘higher’ spiritual realm of the Forms. The ‘forms’ are spiritual realities that have always existed and never change. The earthly life is only a ‘shadowy’ world in which everything is merely a dim reflection of these ideal forms.
Thus we can only know the earthly forms of ‘beauty’, ‘truth’, ‘goodness’ and ‘justice’, we cannot know their ideal form as the ‘Good’ the ‘True’, the ‘Beautiful’, the ‘Just’ and so forth. The human soul belongs to the world of ideal forms, where it once existed. Its reality is manifested in our ability to show spiritual powers such as free will, self-consciousness, memory and understanding. In fact, Plato attributed to the soul the ability to do the really important things, such as acts of good and evil, justice and injustice, and so on.
Besides, Plato argued, the soul’s power is confirmed in the ability of the individual to rise above earthly pleasures and contemplate the higher things of the intellect. The separate existence of the soul was assumed in some of the pronouncements of Jesus, and was later supported by Descartes, and again later by Kant. Descartes made a firm distinction between the world of the soul (or mind) and the physical world of the body. This appeared to conform to common sense, which shows that the mind is able, by rational thought, to be independent of the body and, as psychology shows, to be able to exercise a certain power over the body.
Kant argued for the immortality of the soul as a condition of the ‘summon bonum’ (the highest good), the rewarding of virtue with happiness, which required a continuous life after death. However, difficulties have been raised about an independently existing soul. To begin with, there is no evidence that an independent soul exits. This was the view of Aristotle who, unlike Plato, took an empirical approach. Experience shows that the soul and body exist together, and that they both work together to create conscious human life. This makes the concept of a sol without a body as incoherent as a body with a soul.
For Aristotle, the soul was the ‘form ‘ of the body, that which makes the individual unique in personality and character, and accounts for individual human thought and action. Aristotle also distinguished between ‘vegetable’, ‘animal’ and ‘human’ souls in ascending order (hierarchy of souls), but insisted that the existence of a soul without a body was impossible. Alleged reports of aspirations and spirits, are therefore literally without substance. The so-called workings of the soul are seen as an abstraction, with no evidence to support the view that a human being is some ‘ghost in a machine’, as Gilbert Ryle famously put it.
Such a view, however, would not necessarily undermine the notion of an independently existing soul. Descartes felt that his thinking was more reliable than his experience (cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am) making it possible to imagine a soul without a body. Its weakness is that it refers to something outside experience, but the notion of the spirit or personality of an individual being held in existence by an all-powerful God is not logically incoherent. Indeed, it is this belief that is central to the eschatology of Christianity, in which the deeds of an individual are believed to be held on account by God.
But this view is less about the immortality of the soul than the future bodily resurrection of the individual. The model for this belief is the resurrection of Jesus as testified in the New Testament. The belief depends on the power of an omnipotent God who is able to bring it about. Again, this belief is challenged, on two grounds. The first challenge is on the grounds of empirical evidence. The historical claim of believers for the resurrection is seen as being offset by the absence of any such happening since.
Secondly, on logical grounds, if death is the end of life, there could be no way to coherently say that someone ‘rose from the dead’ The believer will reply that, philosophically, the idea of survival beyond death by divine power is not incoherent, and that its truth is uniquely confirmed by the New Testament in regard to Jesus. As Aquinas held, the human wish to survive after death is a sign of transcendence over all earthly things: as he said “it is impossible for a human appetite to be in vain”. Since this idea could never be confirmed or denied by reason, it must be left as a matter of faith.