Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The meaning of life and the afterlife

Consider this intuition:

  1. If this earthly life is all there is, our lives are insufficiently meaningful.
I think this is an intuition a lot of ordinary people have. But now let's turn this fact—the fact that people have the intuition in (1)—into a puzzle. It doesn't seem at all easy to find an argument for (1). After all, it seems like our earthly lives are meaningful on their own: they provide opportunities for the practice of the intellectual and moral virtues, and such practice seems to be "sufficiently" meaningful. (Sufficiently for what? I guess sufficiently for us to say that our lives "have real meaning". This is vague.) Maybe there is some easy-to-fall-for unsound argument (compare the case of the common intuition that there is a problem between omniscience and free will; there, it is easy to attribute that intuition to the existence of a modally fallacious argument together with the mistaken idea that backwards causation is impossible, which mistaken idea may rest on some fallacious arguments as well), but I don't actually know of one. Rather, the intuition about (1) seems quite direct.

Maybe there is a non-cognitive explanation, tied to the selective advantages of our believing (1). As a general methodological principle, however, I want to avoid such non-cognitive evolutionary explanations of beliefs absent particular evidence, because that path leads to scepticism, besides being strewn with unevidenced just-so tales.

Let me suggest one cognitive explanation: People intuit (1) because they have a more basic perception that:

  1. The main meaning of our earthly lives comes from or is largely shaped by the meaning that these lives have in the light of our lives after death.
Now, there is an argument from (2) to one interpretation of (1). If (2) holds, the main kind of meaning that our lives have is in fact dependent on an afterlife. Thus, there is a true counterfactual that says that:
  1. If there were no afterlife, then our lives would be insufficiently meaningful, where "insufficiently" is measured relative to the kind of meaning that they in fact have.
And then people report the counterfactual fact in (3) as (1).

Now let me add one further twist. After all, there are people who don't believe in an afterlife but who still find (1) very plausible—and their belief in (1) then makes them feel terrible. (Cf. Mickey in the middle portion of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters.) They cannot justify (1) by means of (3). Nonetheless, (1) appears well-entrenched.

Here I want to use a really clever idea that Dan Johnson gives in a recent issue of Faith and Philosophy to examine our justification for the possibility premise in the ontological argument. Johnson thinks that the premise that possibly God exists is a premise that we derive from the claim that God exists, and the latter claim is one we have prior knowledge of by means of the sensus divinitatis. An atheist may then lose the justified belief that God exists, while keeping the derived belief that possibly God exists, with this derived being still justified by its past justification. The S5 ontological argument can then be used to leverage this derived belief into a full-blown belief that God exists. This is circular—and yet perfectly justified, as long as the atheist did not have good reason to cease believing in God. Johnson makes a similar move with regard to the cosmological argument, but I am less willing to go there with him.

Anyway, applying Johnson's idea to the case at hand is a cinch. We have a prior intuition that (2). From this, we derive (3) and then (1), right sense of "sufficiently". Even if we lose a belief in an afterlife, we can hold on to (1), which is a kind of shadow of the deep intuition that (2). We can even give an argument from (1) to (2), which is in a sense circular, but not viciously so:

  1. Given the fact that a finite life of intellectual and moral virtue could be meaningful, (1) only has a reasonable interpretation on which it is true if (3) and (2) are true.
  2. The intuition in (1) does have a reasonable interpretation on which it is true.
  3. Therefore, (2) is true.
I think we do, in fact, have a very resilient (but perhaps not indestructible) pull towards (5).


David Staume said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Staume said...

I'm studying philosophy at London University. I have pondered these questions for many years. At present - if I put myself in a box - I'm an atheist, I believe there probably is no God, but believe in the reasonable probability of an afterlife. This tends to make me loathed by both camps :-). I make the first judgement on the basis of reason, and the second with a combination of reason and subjective experience.

I won't go over the first well-trodden ground where I don't have any original contribution, but offer what I think is an original contribution to the latter. I have reason to believe that we dream in a different geometry to waking experience. That is, the weird things that happen in our dreams seem to correspond EXACTLY (in my opinion and experience) with the weird things that we would expect to happen with an additional dimension of time and space. If this is the case (and I know it's a big 'if'), how could our brain - a three dimensional object - dream in more dimensions than it exists in itself? I don't see how it could. This leads me to the view that it must be our mind that is dreaming, for what other possibility is there?, and that therefore our brain and mind are separate. Yes, a Cartesian dualist - the philosophical equivalent of a leper - in this materialist (in the philosophical sense) age.

I don't know if there's an afterlife or not but I think I can make a reasonable case for one. Add the concept of karma (it's really no more than an extrapolation of Newton's Third Law (for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction) when stripped of its mythology and superstition, and you have meaning by the bucketfull without a hint of God. It would be great if this were true. But if not, I still find meaning in simply being here, alive, for my three-score years and ten - if I'm lucky.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Pruss,

I think that when people think about (1) they are not just thinking about the finite length of our lives. They are implicitly thinking "if this life is all there is, then Christianity isn't true, there is no God, there is no meaning, and so there's no point to any of this." In other words, I think that God and the afterlife are a sort of package when it comes to thoughts like (1).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr. Staume:

As MG says, for most people the afterlife and God come in a package. However, I can also see how the two could come apart.

It's easy to see what sorts of theistic arguments could be given for an afterlife: the problem of evil is insoluble without an afterlife, a perfectly good God would not allow the wonders of a unique person to cease existing, etc. I am curious what non-theistic arguments you have. One set of non-theistic arguments are simply the metaphysical arguments for the natural indestructibility of the soul. These are not as fashionable as they used to be, but that's just a matter of fashion. Is this what you have in mind?

Interstellar Bill said...

The human brain must so strongly suppress all perception of the afterlife that we remain completely ignorant of it. Otherwise we wouldn't be afraid to die, and humanity would never have survived. Same deal if seeing God directly was anything but extremely rare, and brief.

Ditto again for remembering prior lives. No parent would want to raise a re-tread from long ago, so only those who bore reincarnation-amnesiacs would ever feel like raising them. Every parent wants their own child, fresh and new.

Darwinians would freak to see their own style of thinking used to 'promote religion'.

David Staume said...

Dr P,

My non-theistic argument for the probability of an afterlife involves mind/body dualism. If true, an afterlife is a reasonable proposition; if untrue, of course, then it's as dead as a Dodo.

If mind is more than just the experience of having a brain 'from the inside', if it has some form of independent existence, then it's not difficult to see the possibility of consciousness transitioning to that context at the death of the body. But are there any good reason to believe in mind/body dualism?

I look at it this way. We don't see dead people unless we're Bruce Willis in the 6th sense. That means that if there's an afterlife it doesn't exist in our normal dimensions of time and space. I guess that's rather obvious but it's important, because it means that an afterlife theory can only be credible if it can reasonably propose the existence of an alternate dimension of time and space AND a mechanism where our mind/consciousness can transitionn to that alternate reality.

To the first point, scientists are agnostic about additional dimensions of time and space, because there's no proof. But physicists and mathematicians use them in their calculations, observable weird things like quantum particles and black holes probably make more sense if additional dimensions exist, and some theoretical things like string theory REQUIRE them. So while scientists are agnostic, I suspect few would be very surprised if we found proof one day. (PS - I'm not a scientist so accept I might have made a leap there)

But, if they do exist, how could our consciousness transition to another dimension? First, mind and body would have to be separate because there's no way our body could transfer to an alternate dimension.

There seems to be only one possibility. I think it's possible to state with certainty (and how many philosophical things can be stated with certainty?) what an afterlife would be IF IT EXISTS, because there's really only one logical option: If there's an afterlife, we go there every night. I don't think anything else is even remotely possible.

Are there any good reason to think this could be true? I think so. Why we sleep at all seems to be a mystery. Going to sleep has adverse survival consequences - we're so vulnerable. Wouldn't any propensity to need less sleep (or none at all)have substantial evolutionary benefits - ie you're more likely to survive and reproduce if you don't need to be completely defenseless for 7 hours every day? This seesm so odd, that after thousands or millions of generations this dangerous habit hasn't been bred out? But I digress, the only good reason I can find (as a non-scientist) to believe in the possibility of additional dimensions is that I believe that we dream in a different geometry to our waking experience. That is, the weird things that happen in our dreams seem to correspond EXACTLY (in my opinion and experience and from extensive reading about the geometry of space and time) with the weird things that we would EXPECT to happen with an additional dimension of time and space. If this is the case, how could our brain - a three dimensional object - dream in more dimensions than it exists in itself? This leads me to the view that it must be our mind that is dreaming, and that therefore our brain and mind are separate.

All I have though is what I consider to be a logical argument - which I only outline here, I have no proof, so it's for others to judge if the argument stacks up. I call it the 'Argument from Geometry'. But if we do dream in a different geometry to waking experience not only do we have the first requirement for a credible afterlife theory (additional dimensions of time and space) but the second as well - a mechanism of transition to that alternate reality - because we do it every single day of our life - we fall asleep.

Well I've raved on too long. Hope it stimulates debate. Regards.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Do we dream in a different geometry? We do dream in a different physics.

Maybe we dream in a vague geometry. I think I do. Things just aren't as sharp. :-)