Is There Life (or Anything) After Death?

11 January 2015

This week we're asking… What's Next? After death, that is.

Here's one answer: nothingness. How can I be so sure there’s no afterlife? After all, people have believed in the afterlife, since … well, since there were people. Who'm I to say they’re wrong? Well surely we can recognize wishful thinking when we see it. People believe in the afterlife because they don’t like the idea of dying.  It’s a comforting fantasy – nothing more. 

Of course not all visions of the afterlife are comforting. Shakespeare’s Hamlet certainly didn’t think so. The “to be or not to be” speech is all about how even though life is dreadful, the afterlife is potentially much, much worse. 

But that may just be two sides of the same delusion. That is, Heaven is God’s carrot, and Hell is his stick.  It’s like Nietzsche said about Jesus – he was so hungry for love that he had to invent hell so he could send those who refused to love him there. Heaven is the flip side – it’s where you go if you’ve been a good little soul. 

So if we start out firmly convinced that there's no God, no soul, no cosmic justice, then, okay, the idea of an afterlife is going to seem pretty implausible.  But what if we admit we may be wrong? Well what then? Could anyone tell us anything all about the afterlife? If so, on what basis? You ever met anyone who’s been? 

Of course not.  But believing in anfterlife is not a matter of evidence.  It’s a matter faith – at least while we’re still in the here and now. Which is exactly why that might seem like the end of the story. 

But it may not be. Suppose I told you that some really cool things are taking place in some really amazing -- but far off -- place.  You and I are missing out on all the fun. You’ve got no basis for denying the existence of this cool place, just because it’s not nearby, not part of the here and now. You've got no basis for believing it either, of course, so maybe you should be an agnostic about it. 

What then? Well, suppose I decide I’m going to go find out the truth for myself.  I’m going to set out on my own in search of this really cool place. Would you be willing to follow me? Maybe not -- but wouldn’t you even be the least bit curious?  Wouldn’t you want to know if I found it?  Wouldn’t you want to know what it’s really like, if it’s actually there? 

If I made it back and told you about it, you'd probably be happy to listen and learn. So at least I’ve piqued your curiosity. But, of course, I hate to tell you, it’s a one-way trip.  If you really want to know, you’ve got to make that journey yourself. Are you willing to risk it?  Or are you... afraid? 

Now you might say you're not afraid, you're just not interested in wasting time or energy on a lark. But now we've gone from saying that belief in the afterlife is little more than a comforting fantasy to suggesting just the opposite. After all, people who believe in the afterlife are like people who knowingly set out on a journey to a distant land that they know just might not exist. Cowards don’t do that. Only people with the courage to take a leap of faith into the unknown.  There’s nothing comforting about that. 

Then again, denying the existence of an afterlife doesn't have to be about cowardice as opposed to courage – after all, everyone's going to make this journey one way or the other. And some of the many different visions of what the afterlife might be like may be more reasonable and more persuasive than others. Tune in and decide for yourself.

Comments (19)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, January 12, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

We are a species, a member of

We are a species, a member of a large variety of species, that are biologically committed to the greater articulation of the meaning and worth of life that comes of being bound to die. We are also psychologically committed to survive at (almost) any cost. Death is the realest term of the worth of life and what lives amongst us as the project of being recognized that worth is the most articulating term of that worth. But only real in this sense of loss and articulate in this sense of responsibility and recognition is life what we know it to be. Therefore, of course there is no afterlife. And, therefore, of course we are bound to speculate there is. The rest is impertinence.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, January 12, 2015 -- 4:00 PM


                             Hi... Busy?
                             Uhura is busy. I am monitoring.
                             Umm. Well, just wanted to say --
                             nice to have your katra back in your
                             head, not mine.
                                     (He smiles; Spock
                             I mean, I may have carried your
                             soul, but I sure couldn't fill your
                             ... My shoes...
                             Forget it...
                                     (a new tack)
                             How 'bout covering a little
                             philosophical ground? Life, Death,
                             Life... Things of that nature?
                             I did not have time on Vulcan to
                             review the Philosophical disciplines.
                             Spock, it's me, Bones! I mean our
                             experience was unique. You really
                             have gone where no man has gone
                             before. Can't you tell me what it
                             felt like?
                             It would be impossible to discuss
                             the subject without a common frame
                             of reference.
                             You're joking...!
                             A joke is a story with a humorous
                             You mean I have to die to discuss
                             your insights on death?
                                     (re earpiece)
                             Pardon me, Doctor, I am hearing many
                             calls of distress.
                Bones is enraged and frustrated by this.

mwsimon's picture


Wednesday, January 14, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Well, there's the old Kantian

Well, there's the old Kantian limitation about speculating about the afterlife.  It is beyond the bound of possible experience, so it is nonsense to try to make claims about it.  We can't know there is or isn't an afterlife.
Then again, science can point us towards an answer while staying within the bounds of possible experience.  If that experience is created by a living brain, with electrical signals whirring around, and then that brain stops whirring, it would make sense that the experience would stop as well.  Then, there would be nothingness.  That's what I think.  Can I know?  I guess not.

songriter's picture


Thursday, January 15, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Buddhism may widen this

Buddhism may widen this discussion. Its definition of a human being is-- "A temporary union of the five components." These are-- Form (all physical) Perception, Conception, Volition and Consciousness.
It does postulate reincarnation; it does not postulate a soul. What allegedly reincarnates is the pattern itself. This may be best likened to a chess game lasting weeks. At each day's end, the pieces are returned to overnight storage. They are placed again in the previous pattern when the same game is to resume. Although not primarily a religion of beliefs, Buddhists often believe in eternal life- throughout past, present and future.
Karma is an ancient Indian word meaning, 'Action.' It means all the past causes created by thoughts, words & deeds. This idea is based on all our observations so far- that the principle of cause & effect extends infinitely throughout the universe.
It's tricky to explain an ethics of responsibility based on Christianity, which is so deeply committed to an idea about the transferability of sin. Yet responsibility is a natural conclusion based on cause & effect. Further, it can calm our innate desire for long-term justice concerning the inequality evident in our births, lives and deaths. Dispensing with the courtroom imagery, the God's judgment becomes cause & effect- simply the way the universe naturally works.
There is a formidable body of anecdotal evidence for reincarnation. Probably the best known and documented in the West is the Edgar Cayce material...

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, January 15, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Why am I reminded of the

Why am I reminded of the intense discussion in the movie Stand by Me between two adolescent boys regarding the probable outcome of a fight between Mighty Mouse and Superman?
Why do we limit assertions in philosophy? Reasoning is not a matter of finding evidence for what we want to believe, for there is always some reason we can find if we look uncritically for it. Reason is a matter of exhaustively searching for every reason not to believe. Only the completed search justifies belief, and only insofar as we can suppose no new countervailing evidence will appear. The main issue of philosophy then is not to find some sense of comfort in our right to hold onto our opinions, and to express them, even to urge others to adopt them, perhaps under penalty of censure. No, the main issue of philosophy is how we can be assured that our effort to exhaust sound reasons for changing our minds is not only not inhibited by one's own perspective, but by one's social environs as well. The world imposes beliefs upon us simply by offering terms that disincline us from an exhaustive examination.
We are presently faced with a threat of punishment for ridiculing the faith of others. One debate I have heard compares laws against blasphemy favorably to laws against hate speech. But is the comparison fair? Hate speech is outlawed in some venues because it is said to incite violence. Fair enough. But what does blasphemy provoke? Maybe, a more thorough examination of faith? Does ridiculing faith provoke knowledge? Reasoning?
An accusation of a crime that the accused cannot disprove is not evidence of guilt. An assertion that cannot, at least in a sense less than exhaustive of reasons not to believe it, is not philosophy. The continual reappearance of misunderstanding on this point is evidence that philosophy is failing us. Or that religion is not ridiculed enough. The burden of proof is on the assertion, not on the critic of it, where the logic of it requires a reasoning more exhaustive than the context permits.
By the way, the conclusion to the above discussion, the one in the movie, is that Superman would win, because "Superman is real, and Mighty Mouse is just a cartoon." 

MJA's picture


Thursday, January 15, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Surely after death there is

Surely after death there is more life, it's just that some won't be here to be it. =

Crukstrom's picture


Thursday, January 15, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Assuming the life being

Assuming the life being referred to here is the experience of "I". I am alive, I am happy, I am hungry, I look good in this outfit. Since this 'I-ness" seems to be the fundamental characteristic of life then I guess the question is if that I-ness survives the death and dissolution of the body. What would be experiencing I-ness at that point or non-point as the case may be? Would there be a thing experiencing its own existence. Where would that thing be? Where is the hydrogen electron within its probability cloud? Strictly speaking the hydrogen electron is non-local, it has no location in time and space until it is dragged into existence by a collision in an accelerator. Before then it does not exist in the sense we consider to be existence. Yet the electron is almost perfectly predictable in its existence. Perhaps afterlife is more like that. The transition from point value time/space bound existence where things live and die to a non-local eternal state of I-ness where all states are preserved in probability that is collapsed into a distinct self through a "collision" with time. The I-ness is never lost, there is no "after" life there are only shifts in perspective of I-ness.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, January 16, 2015 -- 4:00 PM


You have a very strange idea of surely!
The act of being is anomaly. But, since symmetry is death, anomaly that does not mean to make itself a new paradigm of symmetry, (like the Will to Power or a solitary "authenticity" would be) is opportune of an anomalous response that, act and response, and only act and response, is more worthy of its time than a universe of or in symmetry. The worth is not what it is by extension. Only by extension do we suppose any such oxymoronic notion as an 'after-life'. Why the hell is it that philosophers are so much more inflexible in their thinking than physicsits are? Really! The thinking even the most respected philosophers I read is still in the eighteenth century! Ego? How can anything so in need of company be the basis, alone, of what is real about us?

rsilvers's picture


Sunday, January 18, 2015 -- 4:00 PM


"...for, everything being made for an end, everything is necessarily for the best end. Note that noses were made to wear spectacles, and so we have spectacles,'" Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 1.
Prof Swinburne wants there to be an afterlife and so he invents a "proof" that one exists. His proof though is hardly such.
His proof presumes that each body has one and only one mind/identity and that two distinct bodies must have two distinct minds/identities and that minds/identities are not destroyed or created, at least not by humans. So, individual A in body A and individual B in body B undergo this operation in which the hemispheres of the individuals' brains are swapped and fused. For the moment, let us set aside that experiences form synapses and diet and environment affect gene expression, why must it be the case that the individual, defined by the brain, in the body of A is either individual A or individual B? Why cannot that individual be both individual A and individual B? Why cannot that individual be a new individual, C?
Furthermore, his argument, I won't call it a proof any longer, applies to any being that has a brain; and he extends this to justifying the existence of a soul, and with free will, "God" wanted us to choose. Thus we have that ants and spiders are moral beings with souls!
If there is no soul, if, as Ken states, the "mind" is simply the software running on the "hardware" brain, then this Frankensteinian body with half a brain from individual A and half from individual B is some new individual C; the other body is individual D. The brains of these two individuals are not identical as one has the experiences and knowledge associated with "left A" the other with "left B" ...

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, January 18, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Eighteenth century categories

Eighteenth century categories!
Person (consciousness, reason, emotions, moral agency)  is the characterology indiscernible as consistent with the laws of category or extension. It is no monad. Time is the contrarian. It is nothing but differing. Extension or discernment amongst factors of symmetry cannot explain its being there at all. It is the obstinate insistence of applying continuity as a standard of discernment that keeps us looking for symmetry and extension where change is what it real. But if change is what is real, what articulates it if only symmetry and extension offer us any terms to express it? The simplest, and yet the most vexatious answer is that the entire language of terms of that expression undergoes a recurrent satirical revue, regenerating ever new means and methods of prejudicing change as continuity that again only means anything at all in the moment it is profaned by the act of differing it. Come on folks, let's get with the new century here! Let's see some ideas deserving of a more enlightened future!

MJA's picture


Monday, January 19, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Just an idea:

Just an idea:
Time is another measure of human construct much like space,   a meter, a light year, or an inch, dividing then and now and what is to be, of a singular indivisible Universe in hopes of grasping or managing a Nature truly free of such uncertain control. Life without time or measure, outside the box is freedom, try it and see. Take time out of your life if you can and just be the light of freedom you see!  MLK: "darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that" =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, January 19, 2015 -- 4:00 PM


Space is extension, and so quantifiable. Time is the qualifier. No enunerator can measure it. It is the lost enumerator that is the measure of time. That immeasurable loss cannot be comprehended by extension, however expansive you imagine it. We do not imagine or fabricate anything so real as lost time. It is measured by profaning and satirizing all that extension you will go one about. That's freedom. What you call freedom is casuistry.  
The trick about the whole outside the box trope is that going there invariably refers us back into it and merely complements the enclosure. More casuistry, I'm afraid.

Or's picture


Wednesday, January 21, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Who does the question about

Who does the question about the afterlife impact? We as humans understand that we will die one day, and we desperately try to postpone what?s inevitable by picturing what is unimaginable. This is a palliative measure  we implement to better live our lives,  because really  the question about the afterlife is about the living, not the dead. What this question and one?s own personal answer or approach to it addresses is really how one chooses to live and whom one chooses to be. It is an existential question disguised as a mysterious character: the afterlife. The distinct philosophical quests for an answer will impact who a person is and the way a person lives, but different quests really serve the same purpose: palliation of the pain related to being finite. We are born, we live and we die, period. The personal quest about your own after life is what will condition your decisions, what will make you courageous or cowardly, humble or pretentious, self sufficient or dependent, religious or secular. It will also end right at the moment your life ends. What really matters is the path one chooses to assume and how much palliation one has achieved. Maybe we should rephrase the question or be more concerned about ?How well am I living my life before I die??

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, January 22, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I think the point is rather

I think the point is rather who gains from the belief. Pain stimulates many responses, some reasonable some defying reason. But the afterlife narrative is not just a personal view, it is part of an edifice of power attempting to prevent us from using our minds rationally. What do the promoters of this obstruction of reasoning gain from it? You see, once the edifice is in place, and it is very hard to efface, the world readily gets divided between those who suppose they deserve a good spot and those who will only suffer it. The other side of this coin, the only one that really counts, is that it also divides this world between those who deserve what others produce and those who face such suffering "later" that the only worth they can ever experience in their miserable existence is the "reward" of being put into service of those who are "deserving" in that sense. I don't know any palliative for that. But appealing to reason, in this instance, is preaching to the choir, which can get a bit fidgety. In other words, if there is some sense in which unreason acquires power from its audience, is there some sense in which reason confers it upon them? As, for instance, thwarting the division of the world between saints and worldlings that faith tends to lead to?

anomoly's picture


Sunday, January 25, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I agree with the woman who

I agree with the woman who called: I was extremely disappointed when you limited the discussion to western religions and concepts without even acknowledging how much you were EXCLUDING without easternconcepts. Very immature, and unworthy of anyone or anything connected to Stanford. Not sure if you can rise above that and and allow me to take your show seriously.But I'll stay tuned and hope for the best!

silaslangley's picture


Friday, January 30, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

The program ended with the

The program ended with the question of whether life after death is possible if materialism is true. Richard Swinburne briefly referred to one possibility. But there are many more. I recently published a book explaining many of these possibilities. It is titled Death, Resurrection, and Transporter Beams: An Introduction to Five Christian Views on Life after Death and is published through Wipf and Stock. It can be found on the publisher's website and also on Amazon. It is the only recent book I know of that philosophically explains and assesses the main Christian views on how life after death is possible. It's a great resource for materialists who don't believe in souls but who still want to hang on to the possibility of an afterlife.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, February 1, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I asked permission to flog my

I asked permission to flog my books before doing so, and, though I received a welcome to join the talk, never got that permission, and so have not mentioned my work. Fourty-two bucks seems a bit steep for a self-recommended book. At that price, considering my budget, it would have to be essential reading, not just interesting, and somehow I suspect it isn't even that. My thought, then, is that we keep the discussion to table stakes, as it were, and not mysteriously refer to material available elsewhere (unless we can be expected to be familiar with it). So, if you want us to consider your views, give us the gist here and see what comes of it. Put up or shut up, and don't drag in resources that might merely support a bluff.

William Pennat's picture

William Pennat

Friday, November 2, 2018 -- 7:50 PM

"But believing in afterlife

"But believing in afterlife is not a matter of evidence. It’s a matter faith." -- From the lead article

Actually, it IS a matter evidence and rather voluminous evidence at that, most of which is completely ignored or (at best) contemptuously dismissed by the vast majority of Western intellectuals. I am one, with a doctorate in English Literature and a part=time online faculty position. However, unlike most Western intellectuals, I've come to believe in both the afterlife and the process of reincarnation. Like many, I lost my childhood faith in college and grad school and lived perfectly happily subscribing to what is now termed physicalist atheism. Then my subscription ran out. But it's never been a matter of sheer belief unsupported by evidence nor just because it seems like a cool thing to buy into. I have studied with people I suppose you could call gurus (though not really of the strictly Hindu variety) but, by and large, these teachers basically just showed me how to meditate and engage in other practices for psychic and physical health. Few in this community really try to lay any kind of "religious trip" on anyone, at least not that I've experienced. It's all about practice and finding your own way. Without boring you with the details, one thing all this has led to for me (because of my background) is a great deal of reading up on the whole subject. There is indeed much, very much to read, including in a philosophical (and evidentiary) vein that supports the idea of an afterlife. Provided, of course, that you (unlike many intellectuals) don't simply dismiss the whole idea out of hand with some biting, sarcastic comment. Sarcasm is not evidence either. Keep an open mind and read read read. The literature is literally voluminous and I think you will find some -- even a good deal -- of it "evidentiary"....

PAULEM's picture


Saturday, May 2, 2020 -- 8:00 PM

It's a question that has

Leaving other faiths aside, the only difficulty I have in dismissing Christian beliefs are the accounts of the apostles, their ministries, and their beliefs, in defense of which most of them gave their lives, in agonizing ways. But why is the evidence so meager, outside of the Gospels, and the events described in the New Testament not more widely reported? We read that the graves opened and people long dead walked among the living on the day Christ was crucified. Surely an event to astonish anyone who witnessed it. Where are the accounts? Even in those days it seems that word of mouth would spread the news of such an event like wildfire. Death seems a perfect proof of just how indifferently Nature deals with our species, not some supernatural punishment . It sits quietly in a corner, while we suffer, good and bad alike. The Bible gives us limited choices. Either you believe this, or else. Actually It seems pointless now and then to continue searching for an answer that may not be there, but I do. It is a vitally important question. If I could prove conclusively there is nothing beyond the grave, who would profit by knowing that? Surely it would be a Pyrrhic victory at best, to deprive yourself of the comforting illusion of everlasting life, and ultimate justice. There is a kind of magic in childhood, if you're lucky, there was in mine, before these troubling questions arose. Oh, to be a child again, and never think of death, and then to become an adult and believe that it really does not exist.