These days quite often we hear of death from various sources around us. Every now and then we hear someone died whose death may or may not have concerned us. There are people who are dying due to natural causes, accidents, bloody conflicts, terrorism, natural disasters and ship wrecks. Many people present various explanations for death and for the factors that may have caused it. This, in large part, depends on the cultural upbringing of people and specially on the religious conditioning he/she may or may not have undergone. Death is, somehow, a very frequent event of our life. I remember having googled statistics about death a few month ago to learn that every second one person dies and two are born on our planet. Death is nonetheless going to stay with us for so long as we are alive.
May be this inevitability and frequency of death has led us to extend our thoughts about what may or may not happen once we are dead. We have religious doctrines, on one hand, that try to give us an explanation about a possible afterlife. Almost each one of them is embellished with a notion of a heaven and a hell and an everlasting human soul that will reside in one of those places, possibly for ever. On the other hand we have scientific explanations for what may or may not happen after we die. Of these there are two that are most popular and are based somehow on empirical research and on thought experiments. One view is that as we die we live in an eternal oblivion and in an eternal nothingness forever. This is backed by a hypothesis, stretched out after careful research, that human beings do not have an immaterial soul and that the idea of a soul is a mental one, coined at some stage in the remote human history by human beings with a propensity towards believing in the unseen and the unseeable, specially to explain the cause of unprecedented events, and also to survive beyond burial and bodily death. According to the proponents of this idea, the mind ceases to exist as soon as the brain death occurs and all the mental ideas along with beliefs about whatever esoteric things had been held also vanish and cease to exist. Proponents of this idea have conducted research and they often leverage from the results and loop holes in others research. We have learnt to call such people with various names such as atheists, agnostics or skeptics, although the name atheist suits them the most, specially if they are that rigid about believing in what they want to believe.
There is another classification of people who also leverage from science and their scientific training to show that a human soul, indeed, survives a bodily death and once we leave our bodies we keep on living forever in a so-called afterlife. The research that has been conducted and the body of knowledge that exists to support this line of argument has many dimensions to it. First, we have the spiritualists and psychics, who started addressing afterlife in the middle of the nineteenth century in North America and England. This group of people includes notable and renowned people of that time. Thus, one of the pioneers, Sir Alfred Russel Wallace, was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and the co-founder of his theory of natural selection. A careful review of the history and literature review of spiritualism suggests that it became an independent and a disparate body of knowledge even during its early years. Many spirit communication experiments were conducted and some notable members spent plenty of months in isolation to assess the feasibility of the enterprise and to contribute to the literature in the form of books. The main reason why spiritualism flourished so much in the early years of its inception was also death. Another one of the early pioneers of the enterprise of spiritualism, Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle, states in his book titled, The History of Spiritualism, that frequent deaths due to war was the main reason to vest so much interest in this enterprise. Certainly, people die and their relatives want to know if they are doing well to where ever they have departed. Spiritualism, it turns out that, is widely seen as a religion in the West ever since its early days and its success in the area of spirit communication. A religion that tries to amalgamate and overshadow all the known religions that have a component of life after death appended to their respective doctrines.
Another group of people who belong in this class are the ones who leverage from the findings of the so-called near death experiences (NDEs) and out of body experiences (OBEs). In a laboratory experiment involving an NDE or an OBE the subject is rendered clinical death or comatose to an extent that he/she is almost dead, in a meaningful clinical sense. After being brought back to life the subject is investigated about his/her experience of that period of time. Indeed, this is thought not only to be a difficult process for the subject to undergo but also for the experimenters as well. Besides, the validity of the tests is questionable from various scientific and philosophical perspectives. There is a variety of subjects’ experiences, as have been reported in the literature. While most of the subjects have reported utopian experiences, it must be accepted that some subjects have reported nothingness too. The tests and their results, clearly, have to be conducted and reported, respectively, with a great deal of perfectionism as it can be supposed, fairly, that they have grave consequences on the well being of society as a whole.
The conclusion, nonetheless, is that this latter class of scientifically motivated people have come to believe, as suggested by empirical research, that there is something after death. And that even though human beings may undergo bodily death, human consciousness tends to live on forever. We can still, however, safely believe that the topic of afterlife is an open question, subject to further scientific scrutiny.
This, all of a sudden, heightened interest in the nature of afterlife, in the western circles has many aspects to it. Some of them are intuitive and others can be thought that may have philosophical repercussions. Indeed an interest in the science of afterlife prevails in the oriental mindset as well. I have personally heard many common people talk about the western scientific endeavors about the nature of afterlife and about some of the simplistic methods that may have been adopted; such as fixing video cameras in the graves to know if actually anything supernatural, like any angels coming to the dead and asking various questions, happened. It may be argued that when common religious people, who do not have direct access to scientific method and apparatus and, above that, who do not have any scientific training, read and discuss such accounts of the western researchers’ endeavors about knowing the plight of the dead and not being able to get a clue, whatsoever, about the internal happenings of the grave, have a propensity to alluding it as limit of the power of science and the excellence of religion in being esoteric. I believe that this propensity is wrong. West needs to be complimented a great deal in the way it has progressed scientific research over the past few centuries.
In our era to vest an interest in knowing about a possible afterlife has many motives to it. First and foremost of these reasons is what was pointed out by Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. That is, death. We live in a highly connected world where deaths are taking place around us all the time. We are encouraged to deal it with in different ways in so many ways to soothe our agonies. Thus, it is very common to hear in a western country the common slogan that life is short and that it should be enjoyed to the fullest, something in which there is no harm. Similarly, religion offers many antidotes to death. Islam, for instance, encourages everyone to live every day as the last one.
A very major concern in knowing about the nature of afterlife is that the nature of the latter, if one exists, or if it does not exist, can be vital in shaping and modeling the present ephemeral life. Indeed, any concrete knowledge about the nature of afterlife can be extremely useful in influencing human behavior. For, if we were to find out great evidence supporting the idea that we are destined to live in eternal oblivion once we are dead does not only mean a huge victory for the atheists, it also means a great loss of equal proportions to the religiously inclined, spiritualists, and NDE and OBE sympathizers. The more indoctrinated you are, the more the magnitude of the feelings. Even though I think and believe that there is no harm in knowing the truth. For instance, there is no harm in believing the theory of nothingness if it were found, with compelling evidence, that this is what a human being is destined to be. The viable question then would be to wonder about how to effectively live this current, short and otherwise pointless life, specially in an otherworldly sense. A bad option may be to completely mess it up. A better option would be to shape it nicely, specially by leveraging from some nice examples, such as, as I presume, may have been laid out in The Moral Landscape.
Finding out that an afterlife exists does not rule out the reality that science is a useful enterprise. The idea that science has come to the brink of death just by there being a possibility of an afterlife is probably a foolish one. Obviously, in a philosophical sense, science may be considered to be less valuable if the present life is minute as compared to the next one. Some people may naturally get inclined to improving their afterlives as opposed to their present plight. Some people may still hate their current state of affairs for reasons known to them despite all the worldly endowments they may have at their hands. But people may still hate to live even if they knew that they were destined to nothingness. After all, people living in the western countries have had a greater propensity towards committing suicide in the absence of reasonable stimuli. But the possibility that there is an afterlife does not render science useless or bring it to a brink of death; it only possibly makes it a little less useful.
Similarly, any finding that contradicts popular and deeply held notions should not be ruled out just for the sake of its being idiosyncratic. As a personal opinion this applies to people of all schools of thoughts. Open-mindedness is virtue. Scientific theories evolve and devolve to refine, accept or to reject previous developments.
A conspicuous contradiction to this is the religion itself which remains inflexible to any criticism that is thrown towards it. It must be accepted that the religious, if not the religion itself, have a bad tendency about endorsing every scientific finding that agrees with their religious doctrine and rejecting vigorously whatever is in conflict with science. This must be discouraged. I remember having read an account in the Big Bang by Simon Singh, once upon a time, that when some Pope (possibly Pope John Paul) endorsed the big bang theory, Bishop Lamaitre, one of the pioneers of the theory, discouraged it. The very rational and understandable reason given for that was that science is an enterprise that is in constant flux all the time. And that as much as it may be a source of great happiness for the believers for a scientific theory of great significance to agree with their beliefs about the creation of the universe, it may be a cause of an agony of equal proportions if a latter scientific theory were to refute the former one with a lot more clarity. This is something that happens in Muslim circles too. Thus, every once in a while one gets to hear sermons in which glorious achievements of science are told with much pride which seem to endorse the Islamic ideas. This does sound absurd since normally the deliverer of the sermon has little or no formal education in science.
I am not sure about Islam’s stand on theological skepticism. Of course, it makes a lot of sense to believe that Islam would discourage such an idea. According to Islam a believer is expected to strive to increase his faith in Allah as the sole God and Muhammad (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) as his last and final prophet. I, however, read of a famous Islamic scholar and philosopher, Imam Ghazali (RA), also known as Algazel to the West. He formally introduced philosophical skepticism in Islamic philosophy. According to his own account he practiced skepticism for a considerable while in his life. And after a while he became a firm believer when the God, most high, himself cast His divine light in to his heart. One may argue about the nature of that light or about the qualitative aspects of his conversion, or the ulterior motives there of. One may also argue, after establishing it as a fact, that his spiritual experience was of the sort of the myriad of fake NDEs. But it may as well be the case that he literally was enlightened by God himself. He may have adopted a strategy for that in parallel to his skeptic pursuits. May be he leveraged from a path synonymous with this. Nonetheless, Algazel is one of most revered sufi saints of medieval times. His work also inspired and influenced numerous well known western scholars of latter times. These include, and, possibly, are not limited to, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and Thomas Aquinas.
If the claims of the afterlife enthusiasts are actually true and if there “is actually” an afterlife, it cannot be known, at the present moment, as to which religious doctrine, if at all, is true, This, however, does seem to mean a demise for atheism as to their claim concerning a “nothingness” after death has been rendered false. Obviously, only a formal, universally acceptable, proof of the existence of a supreme supernatural deity (aka God) can hammer the last nail in the coffin of this doctrine.
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