Western belief systems believe that there is life after death. William James waited until the final pages of his classic Varieties of Religious Experiences (1902) before trying to evaluate this belief. In those pages he endeavored to answer the question: Suppose that there is a God; What difference would humans expect God to make within the natural world? Although James believed that God was the producer of immortality, his far-ranging study of religious experience did not provide clear support for personal immortality. He could conclude only:
... that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace. ...Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves with no absolute unity at all. (James 1992, pp. 570–571)
Types of Afterlife Belief
It is doubtful that many believers have ever traded their faith in personal immortality for the speculations offered by James. A far more heartening prospect is eternal life under the auspices of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God. Nevertheless, personal immortality is only one of the answers that have been proposed over the centuries. This entry (1) surveys a variety of afterlife beliefs; (2) considers their foundation in faith, reason, and fact; and (3) explores some of the meanings and uses associated with these beliefs. Survival of death is not identical with immortality, and immortality is not identical with a continuation of personality or individuality. These distinctions become clearer as several types of survival are identified and explored.
Afterflash. An "afterflash" refers to a force field or faded image of the person that occurs immediately after death, but soon vanishes. This afterlife belief holds that the afterflash might come and go so quickly that witnesses are left with the feeling that something happened or somebody was there, yet have no tangible evidence to show for it. The after-flash might also manifest itself briefly on a few occasions before disappearing forever. It is possible that even this minimal phenomenon is not what it seems. Perhaps what is perceived is only a record of what has perished, as the scholar F. W. H. Myers suggests. Myers cites the example of the streaming light from stars that perished before the earth was formed. Even if these phenomena do represent some type of survival it would be in a downgraded and fleeting form that does not express the individual personality of the deceased. Therefore, this philosophy is clearly a long way from personal immortality.
Fade away. One of the most prevalent views of the afterlife in the ancient world was a gradual dimming of the departed spirit, known as a "fade away." In pre-Christian Mesopotamia, for example, the souls of the dead dwelled in a gloomy under-world. There they became dulled, miserable remnants of their former selves. Early Hebrew belief inherited this tradition. Yahweh (the Hebrew word for "God") kept watch over the living; the shades of the dead were abandoned. Within this belief system, the fade-away type of survival did not preserve individual personality. According to some accounts, the piteous dead continued to become even weaker until the end of creation; others are inclined to believe that the spirits dissolved as their vital essence eventually gave way.
Cosmic melding. According to the philosophy of "cosmic melding," the spark of life is not destroyed by death. Because it was never really the private property of the individual, it does not remain so after death. Rather, each person is like a drop of water that returns to the ocean of creation to become a continuing but transformed part of the universal flow. The philosophy of cosmic melding, although not termed this way, can be found in Hindu thought. Central to Hindu belief are the writings collectively known as the Upanishads (the "Equivalences"). The individual soul ( atman ) is at one with the universal soul ( brahman ). Life and death are different aspects of the same reality. One hopes ultimately to escape the cycle of death and rebirth and achieve ecstatic union with the universal soul. This is a survival doctrine that seeks an end to personal survival.
The idea of cosmic melding has been expressed outside Hinduism. It has been suggested that the universe itself is alive with pulsations from the unimaginable subatomic to the unimaginable vast. Individuals pulsate as unique units for a brief time and then participate in the music of the spheres in different forms. This ancient idea has been kept alive in modern theoretical physics.
Reincarnation and rebirth. Besides the Hindu cycle of birth and rebirth, other reincarnation beliefs exist in many world cultures. These beliefs differ greatly in their details, but in 1958 a historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, observed that typically it is not just the life and death of the individual that is involved. Human society and the world itself can be regenerated through death. Many communal rituals are devoted to this purpose, including those that initiate novices into adulthood. There are many rites of passage in the course of communal life. One has experienced symbolic but intense death/rebirth experiences before encountering physical death. However, all of this does not guarantee that one will continue to survive death after death. The doctrine of reincarnation includes the belief that souls can perish because of individual misfortune or attack, and all souls can perish when the skies and mountains dissolve.
Conditional survival. The philosophy of continued survival holds that there is more than one possible outcome after death. A person might or might not survive death. This survival might be glorious or horrifying. Furthermore, survival might be everlasting or only temporary. According to this view, it should not be assumed that survival of death is identical with immortality. There is no guarantee that passing through death assures the spirit or soul of continued existence for all time or eternity. The possibility of more than one outcome after death has had numerous distinguished advocates. The philosophers Gustav Theodor Fechner and William Ernest Hocking are among those who believe that individuals develop more or less spiritual sensitivity and depth through their lives. The universe itself is changing. Within this cosmic framework, the fate of the individual personality perhaps should also be considered as a set of possibilities.
According to this philosophical approach, the nature of the self is a key to what happens after death. In resonance with Eastern thought, these philosophers regard the self as always in process, always in the making. People become more real as they develop their spiritual selves to a higher level. What happens after death depends on how "real" the self has become. People who have gone through life without awakening their spiritual potential will have little or nothing that can survive death, but those who have sought and opened themselves to enlightenment will continue to develop after death.
An elitist view of survival was also known in the ancient world. The possibility of a spiritual survival was the privilege of the royal family, not the commoner. Immortality depended on status, and status either depended on the choice of the gods or political skill and good fortune. Furthermore, Islam as well as Christianity presents two contrasting paths for the soul after death. First there is the waiting for judgment. One is then either awarded salvation or condemned to damnation. Similarly, Muslims either cross the sacred bridge (s irat ) safely, or are hurled into hell. Some of the impure are in torment forever; others may eventually repent sufficiently and join the blessed.
Data file. The concept of a "data file" has become widely known as the ability to register and store large quantities of information in electronic, computer-accessible form. The idea that survival of death might operate through data files does not appear in the sacred writings of the great religions and the rituals of world societies; however, it is a logical spin-off of the computer sciences. In The Physics of Immortality (1994), Frank J. Tipler offers a bold theory derived from concepts and findings in quantum cosmology. Tipler suggests that modern physics is supportive of the Judeo-Christian tradition, although in a nontraditional way. According to Tipler's philosophy, the dead can exist as information and therefore be reconstituted or resurrected in the future. He does not use the term data file, but this perhaps conveys the central idea that one can continue to exist as a potential source of information. When effective retrieval and reconstitution techniques are developed, the souls on file can be accessed and, in that sense, return to life. (There is a parallel here with developments in cryonic suspension since the mid-twentieth century.) But does this "information" know that it is information? Is self-awareness or consciousness part of this process, or is the surviving element more like a book that can be read, rather than a reader?
Symbolic immortality. The idea of something that represents a person can continue to survive in society after death is known as "symbolic immortality." The person is dead, but his or her name or some important aspect of the personality has become part of ongoing human life. Other people, now deceased, live on in human memory. The living will also survive in this way. With continuing advances in communication technology people can survive as CD-ROMs with digitized audio and video, and perhaps in other forms still to come. This is the essence of the concept of symbolic immortality. Wealthy people can endow university buildings and the illustrious can have their names attached to a variety of programs and events, staying alive, then, in public memory. Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra may be considered to have a share of symbolic immortality through their recordings and movies.
Helping others to stay alive has emerged as a relatively new form of symbolic immortality. Organ donation and efforts to rescue endangered species and protect the environment are ways in which people are contributing to the continued survival of others; thereby bringing something of their selves into the future.
Personal immortality. The concept of "personal immortality" is a core belief within the Christian tradition. Something of the individual survives death forever. Many people expect to enjoy a reunion with loved ones. This expectation obviously assumes the continuation of personal identity. Many other belief systems are ambiguous about personal immortality, however, and traces of this vagueness or discord can be found within Christianity as well. A key question here is the relationship between person and soul. Is the soul the essence of the individual? If so, then survival is personal. Or, Is the soul a sort of passenger-spirit that has very little to do with the individual's unique life? If so, then there might be immortal survival, but not necessarily of the person.
Belief and Disbelief
Are humans immortal in any meaningful sense of the word? The history of religion is closely associated with beliefs in survival of death as James, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, and other historians and philosophers have noted. Ancient burial pits, mounds, and tombs often included objects designed to be useful to the deceased in their next lives. From prehistory onward the available evidence suggests that survival belief has been widespread and dominant.
Disbelief also has its tradition, however. Early Chinese philosophy mostly saw death as the natural end to life. Because humans are all part of the cosmic process there is no reason to bemoan one's fate: It is best to become a good person and live well with others into old age. Ancestor cults did flourish, but the illustrious thinkers of the time discouraged people from investing too much in the prospect of immortality. Confucius himself replied to a disciple's question by saying, "If we do not yet know about life, how can we learn about death?" Wang Ch'ung, a scholar of the Han dynasty, scoffed at the presumption of immortality and called his followers' attention to other natural processes by saying:
Human death is like the extinction of fire. When a fire is extinguished, its light does not shine any more, and when man dies his intellect does not perceive any more. The nature of both is the same. What is the difference between a sick man about to die and a light about to go out? (Overmyer 1974, p. 202)
The world has not been divided neatly between believers and disbelievers. Many people have experienced doubt or uncertainty. It is not unusual for people of strong faith to have wrestled with their doubts from time to time, nor for skeptics to wonder if immortality, improbable as it seemed to them, might not yet be true.
Belief can be grounded on custom, authority, positive personal experience, inner knowledge, external fact, reason, or any combination thereof. By "faith" is usually meant a certainty of belief derived from personal experience and/or inner knowledge. Doubt and disbelief can be occasioned by weakened or conflicted custom, discredited authority, negative personal experience, discredited or counter facts, and compelling alternative arguments.
Custom and authority, reinforced by impressive rituals, was probably enough for many people who lived in small face-to-face societies and worshiped local gods. Intense ritual experiences might also produce the inner conviction that one had touched the sacred. The truth was therefore felt as inside one's self as well as with the people and nature. Authority became a stronger force in religious belief as people organized themselves into larger organizational structures. Although the Egyptian dynasties with their central authorities took shape about 7,000 years ago, there were still many small societies worshiping local gods throughout the days of the Roman Empire. Politics, social action and control, and religion were tightly entwined in emerging civilizations. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all beset with internal dissension on a variety of concepts and practices. Authorities, bolstered by canons of approved writings, systematically accepted a particular view of survival while rejecting others (e.g., reincarnation died hard and only temporarily in Christianity).
Questions about the existence and nature of God and the survival of death lingered despite the weight of Church authority and tradition. Medieval theologians and scholars debated these related issues with intensity and often ingenuity. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that the soul is immortal despite its association with the vulnerable body because it comes from God who is the "necessary being" on whom all other creatures depend. This was an influential view, but there were dissenters who argued that "the immortal form" that survives death seems to have none of the characteristics of the actual person who dies—this kind of immortality was too abstract and distant for the critics of Aquinas. Elite scholars made repeated attempts to prove immortality by rational analysis and were regularly taken to task by other elite scholars.
Immortality became a keen issue for society at large as science emerged, challenging the order of the universe as conceived by theology. Astronomers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries made observations that contradicted the Catholic Church's official beliefs about the nature and motions of earth, sun, and other celestial bodies. In the nineteenth century the English naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of evolution led to a convulsive response on the part of established institutions. If humans are but another kind of animal, what then of immortality?
Philosophers and scientists lined up on both the side of belief and disbelief. Strenuous arguments pro and con continued well into the twentieth century. Meanwhile, academic philosophy quietly slipped away from what increasingly seemed like an outmoded and unrewarding debate, and only in the late twentieth century took the challenge up again.
Belief in a just God and personal immortality was shaken by calamitous events throughout the twentieth century. Two world wars, genocides, and a host of other disastrous events led many to reject the traditional assurances. Others devoted themselves to assuage their sorrows and affirm their beliefs through spiritualism and communication with the dead. Brought up within conventional churches, some set off on quests to find ways of life that might speak more directly to their needs. These quests sometimes took the form of exploring Eastern religions, sometimes in reshaping Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices (from which the New Age movement emerged).
Reports of near-death experiences were welcomed as another opportunity to affirm personal immortality. At the core of these reports is an absolute conviction: "This is what happened; this is what I saw, what I felt, what I experienced!" Logical arguments for or against survival of death are always vulnerable to powerful rejoinders. Scientific findings are always subject to modification, even rejection, by subsequent studies. What a person feels and experiences, however, can seem sufficient within itself. A sense of direct experience and inner knowledge is more convincing to many people than a survey of external facts or convoluted argumentation.
Thomas A. Kselman's 1993 analysis Death and the Afterlife in Modern France offers insights applicable to other contemporary societies as well. He notes that beliefs about death were of prime importance in establishing and maintaining social order. How people thought they should live was ruled to an appreciable extent by how they hoped to fare in the next life. In the meantime, public officials and the clergy often played upon this theme to achieve their own ends. By the waning years of the nineteenth century, however, this longstanding social and moral order was rapidly crumbling. The pace of technology and commerce had picked up dramatically, shifting attention to the opportunities of the present life on the earth. The establishment had a difficult time in trying to keep the lid on simmering developments in all areas of society. Increasingly, death became a concern for individuals and their families and fell less under the control of church and state. The "market culture" had taken over, and ideas about survival of death would have to compete not only with each other but also with other, sometimes more compelling, possibilities.
At the turn of the twenty-first century an enormous range of ideas, attitudes, and practices coexist, including Margaret Wertheim's The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (1999) and N. Catherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics (1999). The survival of the survival question appears to be assured for some time to come.
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