Immortality and the Afterlife

Sunday, February 15, 2009
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 18, 2007

What is it

Many religions contemplate some form of personal continued existence after death: reincarnation in another body, or continued being in some vastly different place like Heaven or Hell. Do any of these conceptions make sense? If so, is there any evidence for any of them? And why do people want continued existence, even immortality? Wouldn't it be a bore? John and Ken welcome back Anne Ashbaugh of Colgate University to explore the philosophy of eternal life.

Listening Notes

John and Ken try to pin down what type of immortality they want to discuss in the next hour: the kind of eternal afterlife described in many religions, or living on through our accomplishments and ideas, or just living forever in the same way that they live their lives today. They decide on the last conception, since life is good and more of it seems better than less of it. John is bothered by the fact that in dying we leave behind loved ones and issues that we care deeply about without learning their stories or resolutions, and it feels awful and empty knowing this--like watching a movie we know we will leave before the ending. Ken thinks that most of our conceptions of the afterlife really stem from the feelings John has described, and are created as delusions to assuage the depressing fact that we don't all get to finish what we start.

Ken introduces Anne Ashbaugh, Professor of Philosophy at Colgate University and she begins by describing the difficulty of disproving the afterlife--we have to show a negative, that there is no afterlife, with absolutely no experience after death. John asks Anne to discuss the wide range of conceptions of immortality, and she mentions the interesting way in which religious views on immortality have filtered into science and scientific advancement. Ken tries to paint this influence in a more positive note, reminding everyone that the impulse for immortality is a fundamentally logical one--life is good, why allow it to end? Isn't the most important medical advancement possible the one that gives us all infinite life spans? Though
Anne agrees on some level she also uses a comparison with ice cream to show that the initial intuition that more is better may be misleading.

Ken and Anne discuss the tragedy of mortality, and Anne points out that the tragedy may not necessarily be that we do not get enough life, but that we go on wanting more and more of it, and in some ways allow this desire to make the time we have less enjoyable. John discusses this in terms of David Hume's famous deathbed interview, and questions whether or not there's something a bit perverse about wanting immortality. John, Ken, and Anne discuss the different types of immortality, whether an afterlife or earthbound immortality or some sort of reincarnation is the most satisfying answer to the problem or tragedy of mortality.

Callers weigh in on their personal religious and secular beliefs about the afterlife, mortality, and living on through children, legacies, and good deeds, while Ken continues to underline the predicament of mortality and Anne attempts to treat death the way we all relate to birth.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 4:21): Zoe Corneli learns the differing religious views on the afterlife from members of a Mosque, a Zen Buddhist teacher, a Rabbi, and a Pastor.
     
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:34): Ian Shoales speeds through the story and life of Hercules, famous Greek hero whose infamous deeds were never fully portrayed in the Disney cartoons, and whose immortality may not be entirely enviable.
 
 

Anne Freire Ashbaugh, Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Colgate University

 
 
 

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