Wednesday, November 07, 2018

"The Myth of an Afterlife"

I'm going to comment on two chapters from Michael Martin & Keith Augustine, eds. The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2015). Much of the book consists of "scientific" arguments against Cartesian dualism, near-death experiences, and out-of-body experiences. There's lots of empirical evidence they disregard on that front, as well as philosophical objections to physicalism. But I'll bypass that discussion and focus on the objections of Michael Martin (chap 20) and Theodore Drange (chap 12), beginning with Martin. 

I must say that for professional philosophers, I find their objections stupefyingly obtuse. They are completely lacking in philosophical imagination.

The Traditional Doctrine

The traditional doctrine of Heaven can be elaborated in terms of the following theses:[2]
1. The reward thesis: the purpose of Heaven is to reward people whose earthly lives and behavior warrant it. 
2. The permanence thesis: once one is in Heaven one does not leave. 
3. The anti-universalism thesis: some people will not get to Heaven; and 
4. The individual external existence thesis: Heaven is a place of individual conscious existence.

Regarding #2, if "heaven" is a synonym for the intermediate state of the saints, then they will leave heaven and return to an Edenic earth at the consummation. This is Martin's clumsy way of stating that the saints in glory can't commit apostasy. 

The doctrine of Heaven I have outlined has at least three variants. In the most common variant the immaterial soul of a human being–not the body–goes to Heaven shortly after his or her death. In this variant Heaven is considered "a place" but not in time and space. In the second variant, the body of a dead person is resurrected shortly after death in an altered form in some different space–a space that is completely unconnected to the space in which human beings now live–and is rewarded in that space.[4] In a third variant–one that many scholars believe is the original Christian view–Heaven does not exist now but will exist in the future with the Second Coming. With the Second Coming people's bodies will be resurrected in an altered form but will be rewarded in the space in which we now live.

All three variants of the doctrine of Heaven have deep conceptual problems that affect their intelligibility. Take the immaterial soul variant. It is difficult enough to imagine even in a rough way what disembodied existence would be like in time and space. How would a soul move from place to place? 

How does a dreamer move in the dreamscape? He has a simulated body. Or consider virtual reality–with simulated bodies in simulated motion. 

How would it recognize other souls? 

The same way you recognize dream characters. In the case of people you know, they have the same voice, same appearance. Or consider postmortem apparitions. 

What would disembodied souls do all day long since presumably there would be no need to sleep? 

That's just an extension of our waking state. 

The problem becomes insuperable when it is combined with idea that Heaven is outside of space and time. All of our mental concepts--for instance, thinking, willing, desiring--are temporal notions that take time to perform and take place at some particular time. Nontemporal thinking and desiring are inconceivable. Yet on this variant, souls think and desire nontemporally.

I don't think the intermediate state is outside of time. Beyond physical space, but not a timeless state. 

The two resurrected body variants are perhaps initially less problematic than the immaterial soul variant but they have conceptual difficulties of their own. There are two conceptual problems with the notion that when people die their bodies are immediately resurrected (although in an altered form) in a different space--a space completely separated from our space that is in principle impossible to travel to from our space. It is difficult to make sense of the idea of such a space. On the one hand, how can there be two separated physical spaces, spaces in principle unconnected by space travel. On the other hand, if the space inhabited by the resurrected bodies is not physical space, what kind of space is it? Second, why should we suppose that the body in this different space is that of the body of the same person who recently died in our space rather than a replica of this person.

I don't believe our bodies are immediately resurrected at the moment of death. But to address the objection for argument's sake, if God made a multiverse, reembodied souls could exist on a parallel planet in a parallel universe. 

Consider the variant that Heaven does not exist now but will exist in the future when people's bodies are resurrected in altered form but in space as we know it. Here we do not have the problems associated with the second variant: Heaven is in our physical space and there is only one body for each deceased person. 

Martin is equivocal in how he defines "heaven". "Heaven" should be reserved for the intermediate state of the saints. That's a temporary, disembodied state. The final state is physical and earthly. 

But still there are difficulties. Bodies that are buried decay and the atoms that constitute them might become dispersed. Indeed, some of these atoms might eventually become parts of bodies of people who are now living. And much the same thing is true of bodies that are cremated. 

God creates a duplicate body. That's not a problem for personal identity if you're a Cartesian dualist since on that view the essence of personal identity is a perduring soul. 

In view of problems like these theistic philosophers such as Peter Van Inwagen have argued that not even an all powerful God can resurrect a body that is completely decayed. But since human bodies do decay this is a problem. Van Inwagen has suggested a solution to this problem so bizarre that, were it not for his status within the field, the idea would not warrant serious comment.[5] He has suggested that, despite appearances to the contrary, human bodies do not decay. Rather, God preserves our bodies--perhaps at the moment of death--and substitutes replicas that either rot or are cremated.[6]

Inwagen is a physicalist, so there are daunting metaphysical challenges to personal identity on his view if there's an interruption in physical continuity. That's not a problem for the Cartesian dualist. 

One aspect of Heaven that I have not yet considered creates difficulties for such well-known attempts to solve the problem of evil as the Free Will Defense (FWD). The FWD is commonly used to explain the large amount of moral evil in the world. Since, however, the inhabitants of Heaven presumably have free will yet Heaven is presumably relatively free of moral evil, the existence of Heaven casts doubt on the FWD.

I agree with Martin that the impeccability of the final state poses a problem for freewill theism. 

Moreover, one is inclined to say that by definition existence in Heaven is better than our earthly one. Better in precisely what respects is not completely clear, but the improvement surely must include freedom from all or at least most of the difficulties and evils of earthly existence. After all, Heaven is supposed to be a paradise. This means that it is free from death, sickness, suffering, and the ravages of old age. 

The final state is an earthly state. That doesn't entail death, sickness, suffering, and the ravages of old age.

On the variant the gift of Heaven seems arbitrary and unfair. A father who bestowed unmerited gifts on some of his children and not on others would be considered unjust and arbitrary. Surely much the same thing could be said about God if He were to act in a similar way. But suppose we accept the standard view that going to Heaven is based on merit. It still seems unfair. Suppose that Heaven is a reward for belief, for example in Jesus as the Savior. Millions of people through no fault of their own have never heard of Jesus or at least have not been exposed to Scripture. These people's failure to believe is hardly grounds for punishment, that is lack of reward.

Moreover, even if people have been exposed and have failed to believe, why should they be punished? Many nonbelievers reject the Gospel message for the good reason that the evidence shows the improbability of many of the major doctrines of Christianity: the Resurrection, Virgin Birth, and Incarnation.[11] Even if these doctrines are true and not improbable in the light of the evidence, rational people surely can fail to be impressed by the evidence. It would be going beyond what the evidence dictates--if not being in conflict with the evidence--to accept Jesus as the Son of God. Furthermore, even if nonbelievers have misevaluated the evidence and it does indeed provide solid grounds for belief, many nonbelievers sincerely believe that evidence is lacking. Why would a good God want to withhold the gift of Heaven to a sincere nonbeliever who might lack sufficient insight, knowledge, or analytical skills to appraise the evidence correctly?

Suppose the reward of Heaven is based not on belief but on moral behavior. This is still unfair. Millions of people have not been exposed to the moral teachings of the Bible. That they do not live according to Biblical standards is not their fault. Moreover, even those who have been exposed to the Bible may find its moral message unacceptable on moral grounds. God, as portrayed in the Old Testament, is often cruel and arbitrary and in the New Testament even Jesus is pictured as having a flawed moral character.[12] Moreover, even for those who accept the Bible the question is what behavior should be rewarded. What the Bible teaches concerning morality is subject to various conflicting interpretations. But how in all fairness can Heaven be a reward for following the correct moral standard of Scripture since what this represents is unclear?

Those are stock objections to inclusivism. Is Martin ignorant of the standard explanations? Moving on to Drange:

I take the afterlife to be a situation in which a person has died, but is still (or again) alive following that event. In order for such a situation to be conceivable, there must be some way for the identity of the given person to be established. Othewise, there wold be no way to connect him or her with anyone in a former life, and so there would be no way to conceive of that person as recently being in an afterlife. The question arises whether or not it is conceivable for the identity of the person t be established if he or she is bodiless…

That's ambiguous:

i) Does he mean "identity" in the metaphysical sense of personal identity? What makes an individual the same individual?

ii) Does he mean "identity" in the epistemological sense of how to recognize or ID an individual as the same individual?

iii) Does he mean self-knowledge or the ability of someone other than you to ID you? 

1. Bodiless people would have no sense organs and no body of any sort.
2. Therefore, they could not feel anything by touch or see or hear anything (in the most common senses of "see" and "hear").

What about dreamers? Dreams simulate sensory perception. But there's no external stimulus. Dreamers have simulated bodies in their dreams. They interact with the dreamscape. 

3. Thus, if they were to have any thoughts about who they are, then they would have no way to determine for sure that the thoughts are (genuine) memories, as opposed to mere figments of the imagination. 
4. So, bodiless people would have no way to establish their own identity.

Skeptical thought-experiments are hardly unique to disembodied experience. We can toy with the same hypothetical scenarios (implanted false memories) in reference to embodied experience. 

5. Also, there would be no way for their identities to be established by anyone else.

Sometimes we dream about people we know. The dream characters have a recognizable voice and appearance. 

One main objection to NIA is that its step (2) does not follow from its step (1), because there can occur perceptions without sense organs and without any body of any sort…However, there are problems trying to conceive of such an experience. For one thing, what might seeing without eyes, and without a head, come to? If there is no head to block one's vision, then does one see in all directions (360 degrees in every plane) simultaneously? And, without eyelids, is the seeing forced, with no ability to shut it out? Normal seeing can be willfully discontinued by closing one's eyes or turning one's head. Also, would one be seeing from a certain location. If so, then what exactly is it that is located there to do the seeing? It would not be a body of any sort, so what, then could it be?

Once again, consider the spatial orientation of the dreamer. His simulated body gives him a line of sight or spatial viewpoint. A perspective analogous to actual sight. Same thing with video games and virtual reality. 

And would the person be able to move from that location? If so, then what, exactly, is it that would move?

Once more, consider dreams. Simulated motion in relation to the dreamscape. Likewise, virtual reality and video games. Why is Drange oblivious to the most obvious counterexamples? 

It might also be suggested that step (5) is false because a bodiless person might be able to communicate directly with others by mental telepathy, and that would allow those to identify the person? But how can communication occur in such a circumstance? How is mental telepathy supposed to work? For example, how does the receiver of the telepathic message know who the sender is (or even that it is a message at all)? And how could the sender of the message direct it appropriately, especially given that the sender cannot see or hear anything?

Consider a dreamer speaking to a dream character, or vice versa. In the case of someone you know, they have a recognizable voice and appearance. 

It might be argued that, even if bodiless people could not establish for sure who they are, they could nevertheless have identities and could have some good evidence that they are whom they think they are just by appeal to their memory. The trouble here is that what they take to be memory may not be genuine, but rather, a fake (or false) memory, perhaps deliberately implanted by someone else. Overall, it could very well be the case that bodiless people are simply hallucinating or dreaming and then misdescribing their experience as being an actual perception or memory rather than a hallucination or dream. There is no way to rule that out. 

Once again, it's child's play to contrive analogous skeptical scenarios for embodied experience. Embodied agents hallucinate. If you're psychotic, you can't tell the difference. 

[Price] tried to describe a disembodied afterlife as a kind of dream world created by a person who has survived death. The trouble is that Price merely assumes that the creator of the dream world is in an afterlife without explaining how that is possible. 

From a Christian perspective, the intermediate state is like an inspired collective dream. God inspires disembodied souls–like visionary revelation. 

1 comment:

  1. Michael Martin talks about the sincerity of nonbelievers but that is quite ironic. Consider the kinds of objections atheists make to Christian claims. Ascriptions of Gospel authorship are fake. The "We" passages in Acts are an elaborate deception. The story of the empty tomb is an apologetic legend. Paul told the Corinthians that Jesus appeared to 500 because he knew no one would check. Jesus never existed; the whole thing is a monumental hoax, etc.

    There is no limit, it seems, to the insincerity which atheists will attribute to Christians. But they want their own "sincerity" to be respected.