Those who believe in an afterlife, in whatever sphere imaginable cannot know what it would be like, the shape or form, time or place or any other definitive information about it. One may believe one knows, but that is still just a belief, however much circumstantial evidence one may claim for it or however convincing the sect, cult or guru that promotes it may be. Therefore certain questions can be asked.
Presuming that I will reappear in some form, will it be me and not someone else when some new spirit awakens me? Humankind has long supposed that the individual person lives on in an afterlife and therefore has the same identity. The underlying faith here is that it will be I who will be there and take on some new form, preferably in an easier and better world. Or perhaps the same form renewed as one had at some stage, so if one meets long-lost friends and relatives, they will recognise me? Thus one can build out a narrative to quell anxieties about endless oblivion.
How you were at some given time of life – or any of the other considerably different selves that evolve throughout your life until the ‘final act’ – does not constitute your undying identity. The idea that there is an unchanging self which is one’s core identity has no sound evidence to support it, as Julian Baggini and others have shown. Though there are many scriptures which suggest or assert this, and much philosophy that is enamoured of the thought and its possibilities, there is no empirical evidence to substantiate this. To this, the true believer in the eternal self will often respond that it is a matter that cannot be decided by worldly methods, but only by intuition along with high-flying reasoning, possibly by using supposed paranormal powers to obtain ‘divine revelations’ or occult wisdom. Arguments for all such means must rely on beliefs, unproven assumptions or axioms. Moralists who believe in divine reward and punishment (such as a universal law of karma) are motivated by a range of emotions and unexamined prejudgements. (Around 80% of Americans believe in heaven and hell!)
Suppose such beliefs to be valid and true. How then would our existence be? Imagine – for example – how it would be to be living on as a continuation of oneself in an infant’s body, remembering all those things one has been and done that make up one’s supposed ‘self’, a self which remained the same and could not be changed whatever one did. Would not we then have to drag along with us all our remembered lives endlessly? Not to be able to remember them would not change the real situation, only that we could somehow hide our true self from our awareness. Without self-forgetfulness we could get no relief from the sorrows, sufferings and traumas that marked us in the past. Could a blanket of forgetfulness descend as we came into a new life somehow maintaining an unconscious continuity of self, while an entirely fresh experience develops in consciousness? This is what some believers in reincarnation hold.
This vision is one that rebirthers develop with their manifold extra-scientific doctrines and methods of so-called ‘past life regression therapy’. Such ‘therapies’ are not scientifically based or recognised by modern medicine, depending as they do on ways of altering perceptions such as through hypnotherapy, suggestion, and even the use of mind-altering substances. What one experiences or interprets from them is subjective and uncontrollable by other observations. Many cases of persons who discover they were sexually abused in childhood by parents or others have been shown to be bogus and great suspicion attaches to claims based on these supposed regression claims. Research on so-called false memories and how they arise has made considerable advances.
There is no proof or even reliable circumstantial evidence that either eternal hell or everlasting heaven exists, while there are many feasible explanations as to how these beliefs arose in primitive humanity, what or who motivated and sustained them for all manner of reason. Despite this, there are innumerable differing claims about what happens to the individual after death, countless belief systems of where one goes and how its inhabitants would be… from Elysium to Hades, Paradise to Hell, Purgatory or Sheol, Limbo, Swarga or Naraka, Valhalla or some other realm of ancestors or disembodied shades… the imaginary details are virtually endless.
Various religions teach of intervening periods between death and rebirth. The Greeks believed in this, Christianity developed speculation on it much further, while much Hindu doctrine revolves around temporary existence in other worlds according to what personal destiny decrees. If one can ever be reborn, there would most likely have to be a transition the nature and length of which no one can determine. In that interval, the deceased person may or may not experience selfhood just as before. The disembodied soul or wraith is often alleged to meet judgement leading to trials, punishments or rewards as an adjustment to the other-world and education to further existence… rebirth in some appropriate form or other (even as an animal, according to some religions). The various versions of purgatory (Catholic, Jewish, Hindu) involve transitional visits to imaginary hells or to uplifting spheres, the latter much promoted by mediums,’channelers’ and diverse mystics.
The doctrine that a person’s “true self “ is completely transcendent of the mind (call it ‘eternal spirit’ or ‘heart’ or ‘universal consciousness’ or what you will) is part of the belief system that refuses to consider a person (or soul) not disappear after death, This involves a schism between individual consciousness and the so-called universal one. Many sophisticated spiritual arguments are put forward, especially in Advaitic Hinduism, to bridge this gap. Yet they are speculative in the sense of being unconfirmable in research or personal experience.
Though ‘spiritual masters’ claim to have the experience of both, and many users of psychotropic substances assert the same, there is no guarantee that the universal awareness they experience is the same in each or even any instance. Besides, consciousness must always be consciousness of something – some ‘mental object’ or phenomenon – or else it is not consciousness. So anyone’s guess is as good as another’s on what ‘universal consciousness’ has as its object. It cannot be its own object. So even when we may seem to experience that we are somehow ‘beyond mind and in pure spirit’ – as can occur in many ways from extreme meditation and asceticism, induced trance, the ingestion of opium or of psychedelic and entheogenic substances, the specific mind and brain is still always the medium of experience, for none of it can be recalled without the mind’s activity. However much would-be spiritual teachers struggle to ‘cleanse’ the mind of all worldly aspiration and thoughts, try to stop it, get between though impulses to negate it, or otherwise deny its presence, it remains the medium of all that too.
This brings us to the issue of the dependency of the mind on the brain and the ‘near-death’ experience, which is often thought of by some incorrectly as the after-death experience. A dead body cannot tell what it experienced. No experiment has so far succeeded in showing conclusively that a person who exhibit signs of death (like heart stoppage, cessation of brain waves) but revives afterwards was dead. Therefore no proof of even a briefest afterlife has been established. That the revived person is able to tell of events that took place during the ‘near-death’ experience does not guarantee that this was due to any kind of transcendental consciousness. Other explanations are possible, though the means remain unknown. One most telling fact is the described effects of large does of the drug ketamine can induce a state described by subjects to show very similar experiences to those who have survived near-death experiences, not least the so-called ‘K-hole’ experience, going through a dark tunnel towards a light, ending with a feeling of having died and being in the presence of God. (See The Blissful Brain by Dr. Shanida Nataraja, Gaia, London 2008, p. 149).
Some Eastern religions claim that rebirth takes place at some indefinite time after death. This is mostly thought to be in another human body, otherwise incarnation as an animal at any level of evolution. The most optimistic hope is to reappear as some super-being, an angel, an enlightened soul, a deity or perhaps even as an alien of some higher level of development, but preferably as a joyous and all-knowing blissful consciousness eternally absorbed in a supposed Universal Being. If not next time but sometime in the future. Take your pick… but the chosen belief does not carry any guarantees.
All the imagined dimensions involved are actually inconceivable as definitive environments, locations, lands, societies. The can only be given the flimsiest of descriptions or representation, invariably depending on borrowing known features from our present world. Should there be a virtual copy of the present world elsewhere, incorporeal or not, we have never come across it nor can discover any feasible whereabouts. The power of human imagination can work equally for good or ill, truth or delusive myth-making. As Iain M. Banks has put it: “The imagination is necessary not to make things up – that would be wrong – but to come up with plausible scenarios for what ones senses are detecting, theories that might explain what is going on.”
Those who entertain ideas and hopes about an afterlife often say that it would add meaning to life. If we simply cease to exist, would not life be meaningless, or at least less meaningful? If a person cannot find living meaningful or create a meaningful existence without faith in its continuation after death, it is a sorry plight indeed. Meaning is created by the mind, being the significance we grant to events we experience, whether bad or good, important or less so. Nature does not exhibit any specific meaning (unless one can say procreation or evolution is inherently meaningful). Yet since the ancient past, humankind has tried to find clear unequivocal meaning in its various events and have tried to influence through worship and sacrifices the countless spirits and deities they came to believe must be behind it all. That kind of propitiation has never been proven to be effective, despite religions exhorting prayer and ritual, chanting and meditation, self-denial and much else to conciliate the imagined powers involved. No conclusive evidence of demons, deities, departed souls, ghosts, or other unearthly entities have yet been scientifically validated or widely accepted. Instead, science has provided testable explanations of the vast majority of natural events that affect humanity and also of how people hear voices, seem to contact incorporeal entities etc., making such otherworldly agencies redundant.
Where no satisfactory explanations to the ‘mysteries’ of nature and life could be found, imagination and superstition were called upon to play the biggest role in trying to explain them. This heritage of millennia, though intellectually redundant, has a tremendous inertia which hinders the controllable answers supplied through the lengthy and painstaking investigation of the sciences, answers that were held in great scepticism and were condemned as heresy or superstition due to nothing less than belief and superstition, which are still so very powerful throughout much of the globe. It seems most likely that the model for hell and heaven is earthly, the impenetrable blue mystery (the sky) and the roaring sulphurous volcanoe (hell), with the added details of the joy and blisses that the fortunate experience and the many man-made hells on earth.