Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Touching the Eternal

Is there life after death?

I have briefly raised this question in an earlier post. Since life after death was the topic of my philosophy of religion class tonight, I thought I should sum up that discussion as a continuation of this topic.

Let us first consider the concept of an immortal soul. On this view we are essentially non-physical souls that inhabit bodies during this life only to "go to the spirit realm"- or something like that - upon the death of the body.

There are a few problems with this view. Most importantly, our consciousness and thinking processes are so intimately connected with our brains that is strains credulity to think that there is some non-physical substance that accounts for our minds. Furthermore, since I can explain mental processes in terms of bodily processes, it would seem that Occam's razor obliges us to reject any explanatory need for the soul in the first place. Indeed, it is a very good principle of critical thinking to avoid positing entities - particularly entities we cannot explain or understand - unless very compelling evidence forces us to do so.

On the other hand, should strong evidence for an immortal soul exist, we should embrace it. But there is no such evidence. The most commonly sighted evidence are the following:

1) Near Death Experiences
2) Ghosts
3) Accounts of past lives
4) Visits from recently deceased loved ones
5) Mediums

This evidence is simply not compelling. Near Death Experiences can be replicated in the laboratory, there is no hard evidence of any merit for ghosts, accounts of past lives are not confirmably accurate often enough to overcome skepticism, visits from the recently deceased could very well be grief hallucinations - they are impossible to confirm or deny - and mediums have far too often been exposed as frauds and never passed the rigors of controlled experiments (The case against all these varieties of evidence is nicely summed up by Paul Kurtz).

When all is said and done, given the strong physical evidence that our minds are, if not identical with our brains, at least strongly interconnected with our neural processes, and the very inconclusive - at best - nature of the above pieces of evidence, it seems that we must say the existence of an immortal soul is rather unlikely. I personally do not entirely rule it out, as I know that my knowledge and reasoning skills are limited, but I'm strongly inclined to disbelieve it.

Another possible belief in immortality rejects the immortal soul idea in favor of "bodily resurrection." On this traditional Christian view God will, at the end of time, raise up the dead to live again and forever in transformed bodies. The only evidence of this view is an appeal to divine revelation. But it is clear to me that human beings have never received any specifically articulated divine revelation. All holy books, creeds, etc, are clearly human inventions. We cannot argue from such sources.

Does this mean then that death is the end of us?

Not necessarily.

As I have often written on this blog, I ascribe to a theology known as panentheism. To sum up this position briefly: I understand panentheism as the view that the term "God" does not refer to a separately existing supernatural and person-like being "out there" beyond us. The term "God" refers rather to reality at its ultimate level, "Being itself," "The ground of being," the all-inclusive whole. The best way to understand what these abstractions signify is through an analogy: We know from physics that reality has levels of being which require ever deeper descriptions of the same object. Take, for example, a table. At the level of human interaction the table is a solid object of such-and-such size, weight, height and so on. But at a deeper level of physical description the table is properly described as a certain relationship of interaction between fundamental particles. Both descriptions are correct, the latter simply describes the realty of the table at a "deeper" level.

The panentheist takes this basic claim about the table and extends it to reality as a whole. The universe at the level of physical observation is the total collection of matter and energy interacting in space and time. If we go deeper, however, we can think of the universe as being reality itself only at a less than ultimate level of description. If we think of reality at its greatest or ultimate depth, we must think of it has having no boundaries or limits of any kind (after all what could limit it?). Ultimate reality would then be infinite (no limits), eternal (no beginning or end), and self-caused. All things in our universe can be seen as simply various expressions of the one ultimate reality at a level of less depth. Panentheists call ultimate reality "God" partly because it is eternal, infinite, and self-caused, but also because reality as a whole is so awe-inspiring, mysterious, and tremendous, that we can only feel reverence, humility, and awe when we contemplate it. In other words, for the panentheist all things are parts of God, but the reality of God goes deeper than reality at the level of things, though God does not exist apart from things as another being; God is, rather, the "ground of all being."

So how does this relate back to surviving our death?

Since, according to panentheism we are all a part of God, we are, like everything else, one with God at the deepest level of reality. This means that the core of who we are, that part of us that causes us to be, to love, to think, is nothing other than the very power of being-itself and since being itself is eternal, that core part of us is eternal. In a classic analogy we are like waves in relation to the water. The waves perish, but the water remains. In like manner, it may be true that our memories, personality, and self-awareness perish at death (though I am open to the possibility that something of these remains, I am not convinced that any of it does), but something of us, something that makes us who we are is eternal and imperishable.

Many find this less than reassuring. On this non-personal understanding of immortality, there is no reunion with departed loved ones, and probably no self-conscious awareness of an everlasting life. On the other hand, I'm not so sure that living forever with a conscious awareness like we have now would be enjoyable or rewarding. I could easily imagine it as a kind of inescapable tedium.

But I find the idea that the core of my being is eternally one with reality at its ultimate level to be quite inspiring. This means that my thoughts, loves, deeds, and joys have something of eternal value and meaning to them, that something of my true being partakes of the rhythm of the eternal dance, that the relationships I've had, the things I've learned, and who I've been are taken into and indeed part of the eternal creative act of Being itself.

In short, I am inclined to agree, to an extant at least, with Paul of Tarsus, when he says that
For none of us lives unto himself,
and no one dies unto himself.
For if we live, we live unto the Lord;
and if we die, we die unto the Lord.
Therefore whether we live or die
we are the Lord's (Romans 14: 7-8).
Indeed just as "we live and move and have our being" in the reality that is God (Acts 17:28), so we die into that same reality, our deepest being taken into and included in that divine essence.

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