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16 April 2008

Analysing the afterlife

While there are arguments against the afterlife, professor Fraser Watts notes that the portion of th

By Fraser Watts

Taking a broad view of humanity, in different cultures and different epochs, most human beings have assumed there is an afterlife. Currently, the proportion of people believing in an afterlife is lower in Europe than in the United States, but it is still about half the population in most European countries. Strikingly, this proportion has increased during the last half century in both continents.

There seem to be two main arguments against an afterlife. One, advanced in this column earlier in the week by Jesse Bering, is that it is an absurd and incoherent idea that could not possibly be true. That objection depends on presenting the idea of an afterlife in a simplistic way, and fails to engage with the sophistication with which the idea of an afterlife has been advanced by leading thinkers. It takes one particular version of the afterlife hypothesis and shoots it down, overlooking the immense variety of different ideas on the subject. The afterlife may go against common sense, but twentieth century physics has taught us that common sense is often a poor guide to truth.

The other main argument against the afterlife is psychological. The starting point is the assumption that people who can’t accept the finality of physical death create a life-beyond-death. However, establishing a motive for believing in an afterlife is not sufficient to discredit the idea, any more than showing that someone had a motive for committing murder is enough to show that they did it. On the psychological hypothesis, you might think it would be people who were most afraid of death who would be most inclined to believe in an afterlife. In fact, fear of death makes very little difference to whether you think there is an afterlife, and that undercuts the psychological explanation.

There is a significant body of experiential evidence supporting the idea of an afterlife that needs to be taken seriously. Many bereaved experience the presence of someone close to them in the months after that person has died. That applies to those who are not particularly religious, and with no ideological commitment to an afterlife. Religion is not a major factor in whether or not people experience the presence of those who have recently died. It seems that those who report the presence of the dead are just reporting what they experience.

Scientific and psychological reasoning and scepticism have yet to firmly counter the notion that there is an afterlife. We may have no real understanding of what an afterlife is like, but experiential evidence from around this world points to some form of existence in ‘the next’.

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