Philosophical musings: Life after death

The following is an extended essay in response to the question “Only a belief in an embodied existence after death is philosophically justifiable. Discuss” for my A-level Philosophy coursework written between September ’08 and January ’09. The piece only attained a D grade, however, I believe this was due to the piece’s deterring from the original question. I feel that the essay raised some interesting points and I wanted to share it with you. Please feel free to leave your comments.
An embodied existence may be defined as existence within a material body – we as humans have an embodied existence. A disembodied existence is without material form; some may call this ‘mind’. However, the mind-body problem dates back to Greek Philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Both are the starting point for the opposing views that modern philosophers still hold and upon which they base their theories today. Plato held that the mind and body were separate and that the mind (or, as he referred to it, the soul), spent its life yearning for a return back to the world of forms and merely used the body as a home in which to reside. When the body died, the soul finally returned to the world of forms from whence it originally came. The Aristotelians held that the soul (mind) and the body had a symbiotic relationship and that when the body died, the soul died with it.

The belief in an embodied existence after death would not be justified using either of these philosophers, as Plato’s soul continued after the death of the body and Aristotle’s soul died with the body. They would maintain that even to hold a belief in an embodied existence after death would not be justifiable as neither philosopher’s theories concern any form of physical body after death. There are a host of problems with saying that any physical existence continues after death and philosophy has recognised this. Does the physical body decay or corrupt after death? Experience tells us that it does. If it lives incorruptibly, where does it live? The great religions claim a life after death, but evidence for this outside of the body of believers is slim.

The Christian faith has a definite belief in a disembodied existence after death with Jesus rising from the dead three days after he died a physical death by crucifixion, And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day…” (I Cor 15: 4-5) Christians believe that they too, take part in the resurrection of Jesus by being raised from the dead when ‘the last day’ arrives, “…and the dead shall be raised incorruptible…” (I Cor 15: 52-53) The Bible states that when the bodies of the dead are raised they are transformed into spiritual bodies, leading to a belief in a disembodied existence after death, despite the fact of a physical rising of the dead.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that death is a state of non-existence with no consciousness and do not hold to a belief in any eternal hell. Their belief in existence after death is that of a bodily resurrection in either a renewed body, or a completely new body in Jesus’ kingdom of earth, or God’s kingdom of heaven. They believe that the body and soul are both ‘living beings’ that expire and so do not continue at the point of death. The resurrection only takes place at the point of Armageddon on Earth. “…we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed… at the last trumpet… the dead will be raised… we will be changed” (I Cor 15: 51-52). Many Christians maintain that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs do not conform to orthodox Christianity, primarily because they are Unitarians.

This differs from the Eastern religious views of Hinduism and Buddhism of an embodied existence in reincarnation or rebirth. In Hinduism, the belief is of an eternal soul that continues to live after the death of the material body. This soul inhabits another realm for some time, and then ‘selects’ a new body to reside within, giving way to an embodied existence after death through creating a new life. For example, imagine “John Smith” has blonde hair and blue eyes, this man dies, and his soul travels to this other realm. His soul then inhabits a body with brown hair and green eyes but it still remains John Smith, merely in a different physical form. Hindus believe in Karma which determines the bodily form the person takes after death, so if a person has led a good life, they will come back as a higher being and vice versa. Hindus extend their belief into Nirvana, which is when a soul achieves escape from this cycle of rebirth and gains a life with the infinite spirit. Buddhists share the ideas of Karma and Nirvana, but prefer to call their belief Rebirth, instead of reincarnation as there is no continuity between identities, only between personalities. However Buddhists reject the idea of an everlasting soul, this is called Anatta. They believe that when a person dies, a new personality is made, just as the flame of a dying candle can give light to another candle.

From this, it can be shown that many religions base their beliefs on the concept of an embodied existence after death and so justify a belief in it. However, regardless of the religious ideas held, it is still not possible to justify this belief philosophically as religion holds no solid ‘truth’ (in any meaningful sense) on which to base it.

We can assess the validity of statements made about belief in God and existence after death by using the Verification and Falsification principles put forward by the Vienna Circle in the 18th Century. Verification runs on the same principles as Logical Positivism; these being that a statement is only meaningful if it can be proven empirically. To say “there is an embodied existence after death” could be said to have no worth or meaning as it cannot be proven true by means of science. Contrarily, Falsification works on the grounds that a statement cannot be meaningful unless it has some means in which to disprove it, so “there is an embodied existence after death” would have no meaning as there are no means in which to disprove it.

Some religious communities set great store by a personal experience of the divine, whether through visions or corporate religious behaviour such as the Toronto Blessing; first experienced by Christian believers at the Toronto Airport Ministries, Canada. The phenomenon was first reported in 1994, in which mass groups of people appeared to be experiencing God via the body and communicated it through erratic behaviour.

A similar example of an experience that posits the existence of God is that of St Teresa of Ávila. During the latter part of her life, St Teresa claimed to have had three visions of Jesus in bodily form. The most famous of these visions inspired the Baroque artist Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of St Teresa, which depicts the nun being impaled repeatedly with a golden lance through the heart by an angel; these events caused her physical pain which she experienced in a bodily form. She claimed that this was proof that God was acting through her and therefore led her to reaffirm that God existed.

Believers say that these personal experiences are proof of the Holy Spirit and God’s work in the world and lead them to conclude that these are evidence of God. Many critics deny that such events are religious experiences; rather they are evidence of mass hysteria. Followers of the Via Negativa or Apophatic Way support these critics’ claims. Rather than defining God by what he does do and how he does act (Cataphasis), the Via Negativa attempts to describe God by saying what he is not and by what he does not do in the world, for example, to make the statement ‘God is not ignorant’ implies that he is wise, another example would be ‘God does not let people suffer’. Supporters of apophasis claim that one cannot endow God with human qualities (for example ‘God is kind’) because to do so compromises God’s divinity and makes him, effectively, less than God.

These personal experiences of God acting through the body support an existence of some form of deity and so an existence after death. However, any form of existence after death, be it embodied or disembodied, could be considered miraculous. A miracle is defined as an extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses any human power and is often considered to be a work of God. Illustrative of this is the raising of Lazarus from John 11, “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips…” (Jn 11 38:44) British philosopher John Hick states that a miracle is “an event through which we become vividly and immediately conscious of God as acting towards us.” Hick goes onto say that a miracle cannot be classed as a miracle if it does not make us strongly aware of God’s presence in the world, and that a miracle can only be so if it is experienced as “religiously significant”.

John Hick uses his replica theory to give credence to an existence after death in an embodied form. His theory states that at the point of death, a divine being (in this case, God) creates an exact replica of the person and puts them in another world outside of human means of detection. He states that this replica has exactly the same emotions, feelings, wants and desires as the original being and has exactly the same physical features. However, one could raise the objection that this replica of John Smith for example, is not the original John Smith, just as a clone of myself would not actually be myself. In recent communication, Mr Hick confirmed that this theory was merely a mind exercise: “I should explain that the idea was simply a thought experiment, not something that I personally believe to be the case.” (Email to course teacher Oliver Davies, 20th October 2008).

Maurice Wiles, an ex-Oxford British Philosopher, assess the relevance of miracles from a moral perspective; he argues that miracles are trivial because they involve such things as weeping statues, which seems to indicate that God’s action in the world is insignificant. He argues that, if God can make a religious man or woman see a figure of a religious idol appear to them in a pilgrimage, why did he not save millions of lives during the second world war, “…no miraculous intervention prevented Auschwitz or Hiroshima… miracles acclaimed in traditional Christian faith seem trivial by comparison,” The standpoint that Wiles takes can be related back to the story of Lazarus from John 11. Jesus knew that Lazarus was ill when he was contacted, yet waited until he was dead to go to him, almost as if he knew that this would be an opportunity to ‘parade’ his power and to prove that he had divine force from God.

These statements from Wiles offer a challenge to the Christian doctrine by changing God and Jesus’ places in the faith. He does not believe that Jesus was born the son of God; he became the son of God throughout his life by means of “the perfection of human response to God”. He claimed that instead of divine intervention from God in the world, he is merely there to sustain and create the world. Wiles maintains that this God, one who makes such trivial events happen is not worthy of Christian belief and worship. He states that this form of intervention would require that God’s will is unchallenged by any form of law and is free from restrictions, Wiles states that this view of God is “both implausible and full of difficulty for a reasoned faith”.

A counter argument to Wiles’ theory comes from that of St. Irenaeus (2nd Century) and his theodicy on the ‘problem of evil’. Irenaeus states that man was created and given free-will so that he could choose to turn to God and become one of his children. The freedom that God gave man made way for the moral evils that the world has seen; the holocaust for example. He extended his theory by stating that the world was a ‘soul-making place’ where man could continue his development into a child of God and that evil was essential to this development to create and strengthen human qualities; God tested his children by allowing evil to exist in the world. At the point of death, a person who had completed their development would continue into heaven. Those who had not would continue their development in a disembodied existence (spirit form) until they were ready to enter the kingdom of God.

Another British philosopher, David Hume, defined miracles as violations of the laws of nature. Miracles validate religion because they are evidence for the work of the divine. Hume himself was a religious believer and used his theory to support the existence of the divine. Hume argues that everyday belief in miracles is determined by human concepts of probability measured against believability. According to his theory, a miracle should only be so named if it falls beyond the human concept of ‘unbelievable’ so closely as to say it could be considered ‘impossible’. He goes on to say that for someone to believe in a miraculous event, one must balance the belief that such an event can occur against the belief that it cannot.

In summary, miracles support religion as they are evidence of the work of the deity in question; however the morality of miracles is doubted, consequently the belief in an existence after death. Hume would argue that an embodied existence is miraculous and so a belief in it would be justified, as it would support the existence of God. Also, any form of existence after death must be considered beyond unbelievable as there is no evidence to support it, setting in stone the fact that it is a miracle. By taking Wiles’ view we counter this and say the implausible and unreasoned belief in God would therefore lead to the belief in miracles being ‘implausible’ and ‘unreasoned’.

Whether we accept an embodied or a disembodied existence after death depends on the distinction we make between body and soul. One way to define this distinction is through the theory of Cartesian Dualism. Rene Descartes’ theory borrows the ideas of Plato in that the body and soul are two separate entities and that they both have their individual ‘wants and desires’. Descartes believed that the body was merely a biological construct, a machine which conformed to the laws of physics. On the other hand the soul, (or in Descartes’ language, the mind), was non-physical and did not conform to the laws of physics. Despite this, Descartes named a location in the body in which the soul/mind interacted with the body. This place was the pineal gland, a gland in centre of the brain between both hemispheres. Although he named a site in the body where the soul/mind could be located he did not mean that it resided there entirely, he meant only that the pineal gland was the point of interaction between the two. He also said that the soul/mind was indivisible; it could never be spilt up or damaged. So if the body was damaged in any way, the soul still remained fully intact.

Another type of dualism was posited by Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Non-Cartesian Dualism maintains the belief that Descartes held; the mind and body are two separate entities, but Spinoza made the change that the mind and body are completely separate and unique in their own right, in contrast with Descartes’ theory in which the body and soul were non-separable.

In summary, we can deduce that no distinction made between body and soul can support an embodied existence after death. All philosophical standpoints studied show that the body and soul both have different paths at the point of death and for the body, its path ends at nothingness. A belief in an embodied existence is not philosophically justifiable based on these distinctions as there is no scenario in which the body continues to live after the point of death; in most cases, it is only the soul which can be thought of as surviving, positing a disembodied existence.

In conclusion, it can be said that belief in an embodied existence makes good ‘religious sense’. The majority of world religions have such a belief at their core, either for the religious ‘idol’ (Jesus, Lazarus) or for the followers themselves. Whether this may been seen as a useful ‘crutch’ during bad times or as a reward for the righteous, eternal life after death in an embodied form (or reincarnation in the case of Hinduism), is common across the faiths. To justify beliefs in such existences so as to satisfy a philosopher is something entirely different. Philosophy is the search for truth using facts on which to base theories; whereas religion relies on doctrine and the faith of its followers. The philosophies explored in this essay point away from justification in a belief in embodied existence after death… “To the non-believer no explanation is possible; to the believer no explanation is necessary” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky).


1) Anne Jordan, Neil Lockyer, Edwin Tate


Philosophy of Religion for A Level – OCR Edition


Nelson Thornes Ltd.

2) October-November 2008

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3) September-October 2008

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3) September 2008-January 2009

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4) November 2008

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5) December 2008

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6) October 2008 –


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