Life After Death? --Immortality within an Evolutionary World-view

Issue #7 of DIALOGOS:
An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology

First posted, Aug. 17, 1997; updated Jan 14, 1998

Opening Remarks:
According to a recent (1996) Gallup poll, although about 94% of U.S. citizens say that they believe in God, only 71% believe in some form of life after death, figures that are, given a +/- 3% sampling error, virtually identical with a similar poll taken in 1948, this despite the recent rash of supposed empirical evidence ("near-death experiences", etc.) held up as warrant for such belief. In this issue of DIALOGOS the editor intends to take quite a different approach, philosophically exploring the subject in the context of differing paradigms within which this belief or hope has been conceptualized, and suggesting that a new paradigm is sorely needed. Your input is invited.

The Possibility of Immortality Within an Evolutionary World-View

"Immortality", strictly speaking, means immunity from death. Except for some apocalyptic beliefs, very few philosophies or religions have ever suggested that any form of life beyond this one is really possible apart from first undergoing physical death. Yet at the same time, such a concept implies a great deal more than simply some kind of recycled existence, whether it be by means of ancient beliefs in "reincarnation" or modern scenarios of a "resurrection" based on cybernetic theories or even hopes based on cryonic technology. Instead, without getting into any involved discussion as to what the nature of such a life might be, this essay, after attempting to shed some light on the confusion caused by the collision of old paradigms, seeks to explore the possibility of conceiving of an after-life in terms that might make more sense within the framework of an evolutionary world-view.


The Old World-views and Their Associated Beliefs

According to the philosopher of science, Thomas S. Kuhn, a paradigm is "an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on, shared by members of an entire community" -- and which, we may presume, affects a given people's approach to thinking about any subject and makes them resistant to any new way of looking at things. Historically speaking, among those peoples where there has been a belief in life after death, this conviction has generally taken one or another of two approaches, each associated with a distinct world-view or paradigm of reality, although ingenious, and sometimes confusing, combinations of both types of belief continues, and still continue, to coexist.

The FIRST of these approaches, which might be called "soul- belief", has been generally associated with a cyclical view of time, usually seen as a constant flux within a non-created, everlasting, and, so it would seem, ultimately spiritual universe. Affording a permanent point of reference in this world of "eternal return", the human "soul" or "spirit", while it may inhabit and animate successive bodies, will ultimately pass on to exist in a separate, non-material or completely "spiritual" realm. Apparently having its origin in ancient shamanistic practices, this may well be the oldest, and perhaps the most universal form of belief in the possibility of life after death.

Such a belief in an immortal and immaterial "soul" also is the core element of a whole philosophical mode of thinking, known in the West as "platonism" (as derived from Plato's account of the teaching of Socrates) but which is duplicated in many forms of "idealist" thought in which ideas, forms, or patterns, or (as in the case of the various Gnostic religions) "spirit" is seen as a more fundamental and permanent reality than physical phenomena. Adopted, at least in part, by many Christian thinkers, this philosophical stance also permeates most of Eastern (especially Hindu) religious thought, and through it, much of "New Age" spirituality and most contemporary concepts of "heaven" or some kind of afterlife.

The SECOND basic form of hope in the possibility of life after death, which we shall term "resurrection-belief", has its origins in a completely different view of reality, one that generally been associated a more "linear" view of time. This view, which many scholars believe originated in Persian (especially Zoroastrian) thought, from there passing into the biblical account of creation, takes the physical world at face value and holds that the biological functioning of the human body is the basic condition for the psychological activities of human existence. When such physical or biological life ceases, so does all the rest. Such thinking has had great difficulty with any ideas of the existence of anything a like a naturally immortal "soul" or with any ideas of personal reincarnation. Like creation itself, each human life was seen to have had it distinct beginning in time, and by implication, its definite end. According to this pattern of thinking, if humans can be said to have a "soul" (in fact, there was not even a distinct word for such a concept in the Hebrew language) this is merely a manner of speaking or a description of the sum of our mental processes, having no natural qualities that can somehow survive death.

In many ways, despite its religious origins, -- as witnessed by the anatta or (literally) "no-soul" doctrine as it is understood in the oldest form of Buddhism, i.e. theraveda -- we can see in this view something much more akin to the modern scientific- materialist mentality, in which the human mind or consciousness is characterized, as it was by the philosopher David Hume, as "a bundle of sensations". But in fact it is a view that also had its counterparts among the "atomist" philosophers in the ancient Greek world. So it seems that even here "there is nothing new under the sun."

Given this very down-to-earth viewpoint, it should come as no surprise that when Jewish ideas of any possibility of life after death first began to take shape (notably after the time of the Babylonian captivity and its Persian aftermath), such hopes generally took the rather radical form of belief in a physicial resurrection. (The famous vision of the "dry bones" coming back to life in Chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel was taken quite literally by many belivers.) Within this kind of mind-set, so impossible is a "natural" concept of life after death that it was believed that only God's own life-giving "wind" or "spirit" (the Ru'ah Yahweh) was capable of breathing new life into a dead body (bashar or corpse, enabling it to become a "nephesh" -- the word that is generally mistranslated as "soul" in most English versions of the Hebrew scriptures but which actually means a "living being", or alternately "self". Thus it was, as hopes increased for the future coming of a mashiach ("Messiah"), so too did the belief in a relatively soon-to-come resurrection of the dead, a belief held, it seems, by both the reform-minded Pharisees as well as by Jesus and, in turn, by his followers who became convinced that their martyred Master had indeed already risen from the dead.

Nevertheless, given Christianity's early dispersal into the non-Jewish world where Greek-platonist thought was widespread, its theology tried to somehow combine this resurrection-belief with platonist views, thus confusing paradigms or more often, trying to reinterpret the former in terms of the latter. No doubt the fact that the New Testament was written in Greek (thus frequently using the familiar term psyche or "soul" -- even if not in the platonic sense) and that many converts found the resurrection belief, when taken too literally, somewhat ridiculous, perhaps even repugnant, was an incentive towards this amalgamation of views or prompted attempts to further spiritualize the concept of the resurrection. Yet the more Christian beliefs moved in this spiritualizing direction, the paradoxical result was to undercut its own insistence on the importance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, not just as a "proof" or vindication of faith in Jesus, but also in the future resurrection of the all the "saved" as an essential component of eternal destiny for human nature as a whole. In more recent times, this same ambivalence and the confusion it has caused was eventually to lead to a kind radical dualism, as well as the various reactions (such as Hume's) taken by modern philosophy, to Decartes' view of the soul as a kind of "ghost in a machine". In light of this situation, can anyone be surprised that doubt, whether open or suppressed, is endemic regarding the likelihood of an after-life?


A New Paradigm

If Kuhn is correct about a paradigm involving a whole "constellation" of beliefs, values, etc., then it is high time that we begin to rethink our approach to the subject. Neither of the ancient paradigms, based as they are on pre-scientific world-views, nor their associated ideas of an after-life, at least when taken at face value, any longer make much sense. Instead, in their place, we would propose that three insights, all of them suggested by contemporary science, might lead us to a radical reconceptualization and reassessment of our chances, if any, of surviving death. But it should be understood that these ideas are presented not as any kind of "proof" but rather more as questions by way of "extrapolation", that is to say, by way of theoretical projections or estimates prompted by certain patterns emerging from contemporary thought.

FIRST, if, as particle physics would have it, matter and energy are not only convertible but even more fundamentally, matter is really energy in a kind of "crystallized" or "congealed" form, then it would seem to follow that much of the simplistically "atomistic" understanding of nature, both in its structure and development, needs to be completely rethought. Rather than in terms of mere arrangement of "atoms" or bits of "matter", it is the dynamic relationship or patterns or alternately, the "quanta", of energy that most likely explain both the existence of matter as well as the phenomenon of consciousness.

But if this be so, then should not human thought or awareness, from this point of view, be seen more as a kind of a special self-reflective energy "field" -- which like other energy fields, once propagated, just might continue to some extent exist beyond the initial event (e.g. the "Big Bang") from which they took their origin? In this view, what philosophy and theology has long considered to be "spirit" may not be so much the opposite of "matter" but instead a dimension or potential rooted within the nature of matter or energy itself. Seen this way, philosophical dualism or the battle between a spiritual vs. material interpretation of reality and with them, the dichotomy that characterizes the two most ancient paradigms, would be radically undercut.

SECOND, despite more recent claims to the contrary, suppose that biological evolution, at least broadly speaking, can still be described, much as it was by the scientists at the 1959 Darwin Centennial, as a "one-way, irreversible process in time which during its course generates novelty, diversity, and higher levels of organization." For even if this supposed "irreversibility" remains a matter of contention, still the fact of evolution is almost impossible to describe, much more explain, except in terms of some kind of law of complexity- consciousness, in which greater biological complexity provides the infrastructure for higher degrees of consciousness.

Yet it is it is equally obvious that such complexity cannot occur unless the death of individuals (as well as, in many instances, the death of whole species) enables the characteristics of past generations to be passed (ontology recapitulating phylogeny) in new combinations leading to more complex forms of life. Thus we see energy continually reorganizing itself, not only in terms of fundamental physical states, but even more in terms of its organic (living) structures, including those exhibiting rudimentary as well as more highly developed states of consciousness. In fact, it would appear that the it is the very randomness of nature, the "play of chance", is itself the prerequisite for the emergence of human freedom and which, in turn, might explain the necessity or at least of the inevitability of much that we, from our human perspective, consider to be evil or tragic in life. (See DIALOGOS, issue #4 for more on this subject.) So too, might it not follow then that the kind of change of state represented by death (which seems to be the ultimate evil in the eyes of most humans) instead of representing the cessation of all consciousness, is a precondition for the reorganization of the human energy field that may lead not only to its prolongation but even towards a higher stage -- perhaps an even more intensive form of human freedom and the awareness on which it depends, one that, much like our genetic "memory", somehow survives or is even enhanced by death? So instead of representing a cessation of all consciousness, might not the dissolution of the biological organism serve as the threshold of a even higher freedom and consciousness? Admittedly, this seems like a "long shot" of questionable probability, especially in view of more contemporary views of biological evolution which increasingly question the old Darwinian dogmas of "the survival of the fittest" or the whole concept of evolutionary "advance". But on the other hand, given the increasing doubt (as explained below) that anything of consequence might survive a collapse of the evolutionary process, then this "long shot" could well turn out to be the only one we have. Thus...

THIRD, it is becoming increasingly clear that cosmology, overwhelmingly dominated by the "Big Bang" theory, predicts exactly that -- that is, either an eventual "heat death" or else a final "big crunch" will eventually make evolution, or at least this present line of it in the universe as we know it, utterly impossible. If we are persuaded, that, despite occasional setbacks, evolution truly is "irreversible" over the long run, then some kind of transformation of energy into a state of permanent consciousness beyond the confines of space-time would seem to be the only logical alternative. Either some, even if not all, human consciousness, or that of other intelligent creatures, must somehow survive or else nothing -- at least nothing of any great consequence to us -- will survive. Thus, when understood within the evolutionary paradigm, we may have no choice between belief in "irreversibility" as realized in some kind of personal immortality on the one hand, or else having to ultimately confront what amounts to philosophical "nihilism" on the other.


A Final Caution or Condition

Nevertheless, especially in view of the tentativeness of the above approach, it might be prudent to suggest that some additional causal element may be necessary, not just for the sake of the survival of our individual consciousness but for the sake of any lasting outcome of evolution itself. However strong the evidence may be, it falls far short of any guaranteed permanence for either the evolutionary process or its final outcome. For despite the faith of the Darwinians in evolution's over-all irreversibility "in time", the poor survival rate of any one species within this evolutionary process, plus the long-term cosmological outlook, gives us little natural support for any belief in survival beyond time. Accordingly, it is highly unlikely that such a transformation or change of state, even if it could occur, would be automatic or within the natural possibilities of the process as we understand it. Something more may well be required -- certainly something more than some vague evolutionary imperative or even simply our wish that it might be so.

Not that human ambition does not play its role. Indeed, human evolution, manifested as individual striving or desire may very well be absolutely essential. Once evolution has proceeded to the stage of self-reflective consciousness, as in the case of the human species, it seems highly unlikely that individual humans could expect to somehow retain a state of reflective awareness beyond death without careful attention to its cultivation in this life. The evolution of a higher, more permanent state consciousness could hardly be the reward of indifference. But still, such striving may be, at most, a necessary but ultimately insufficient preconditionfor the transformation of energy-matter into any lasting form of consciousness.

Nor should the impression be given that this interpretation of the evolutionary paradigm, with its emphasis on the responsibility for our own individual spiritual evolution, totally discounts much of the wisdom and insights of the spiritual teachers of bygone times. Not only must the actual possibility of life after death be seen as a divine gift or "grace" -- or as some of the pre-socratic myths saw it, as a prize stolen from the gods -- but so too we must heed their warnings about the dangers of the quest. Thus while the logic of evolution would seem to indicate that our individual consciousness might somehow survive death, the experience (i.e., experimental knowledge) of most of these visionaries and mystics seems to indicate that the closer we come to this goal, the more that the kind of individual consciousness, particularly that all-to-often self-centered consciousness that we're so keen on preserving, matters less and less, and in fact may stand as a barrier to its full realization.

If this be true, then it just may be that learning to live with the lack of intellectual certainty, and especially any empirical "proof" regarding the possibility of life after death, and yet living life in such a way that we transcend self and our inborn ego-centricity, is itself the key that corresponds what the highest religious wisdom has called "faith". To live by faith is not so much to stubbornly hold to some list of presumed certainties, but instead to live in an attitude of loving trust in the providence of that Source of all being that gives ultimate meaning of the universe. In fact, it just may be that the highest law of spiritual evolution can only be expressed in what amounts to paradox: that "it is only in dying to self -- including, to our own egotistic drive to survive at all costs and to master all mysteries -- that we live." (R.W. Kropf, as emended 8/22/1997)

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