Why fret about the Afterlife Hypothesis?
The previous post looked at how the black swan of Pam Reynolds‘ Near Death Experience (NDE) could perhaps be seen as a blow to the white swan theory that there is no possibility of life after death. This focused on the possible truth value of the Afterlife Hypothesis. There is a critical look at the data in the Wikipedia link above that reveals weaknesses, of which I was previously unaware, in the case as presented in the television documentary. I still feel that mind-brain independence has been established in this case because of the accurate visual experiences gained under anaesthesia (see previous post on this subject — now revised). None the less we still need to consider the usefulness of the Afterlife Hypothesis if we are going to be able to persuade those who are sceptical to rethink.
We saw that Ken Ring’s research, which is summarised in Lessons from the Light, noted how often people who had experienced an NDE felt that their lives had been enhanced and that they wanted to be of service to their fellow human beings.
I said that we would come back to this point — the usefulness of holding the Afterlife Hypothesis to be true. I also said we’d look at why this aspect of the issue is critical if we are to understand why belief or unbelief on this issue matters to us all, believers and unbelievers alike, almost regardless of its truth value.
Some people may find the discussion that follows a bit challenging: it was impossible to write about it clearly without seeming to come on a little strongly. In spite of appearances, though, I respect differences of view immensely and would hope to learn at least as much from those who disagree with me as I do from those who think the same.
I’d like to focus on two aspects of the question of belief in the afterlife: its usefulness and its importance.
Our answer to questions about whether or not we have a soul, and whether or not that soul is immortal, very much determines who we think we are. It shapes our identity. Who I think I am powerfully influences what I decide to do and how I relate to others and to the world around me. It is important.
Then, when we look at the average effect of all our actions, influenced by all our various views of who we are, we will find that we have a vision of the kind of society, civilisation and culture we are creating by these decisions and these actions. This in turn influences who we continue to think we are. What’s perhaps even more important is it influences who our children come to think they are. In this way we enhance or warp our futures.
Because our future depends on it, we will need to address, as a society, whether materialism in its various forms is enough when it causes us to derive our values and our morals only from reason, experience and our shared sense of humanity – not that those are entirely without worth: a society that shuts its eyes to the feedback from experience and blinds itself to the truths that are within the reach of reason will soon fall off a cliff it is convinced does not exist.
But materialism goes too far when it preaches dogmatically that there is no need of any seal of approval from outside, no need of a transcendent point of reference, no need to believe in an afterlife. It claims that we can, as it were, place each of our feet in two different buckets, grasp the handles and heave ourselves off the ground. In my view materialism is trying to persuade us that the tiny candle of reason can illuminate the dark vastness of the entire universe: I find that claim preposterous.
Is getting the best out of ourselves without God really like the bucket problem?
Unfortunately, mobilising the evidence to try and demonstrate that materialistic worldviews fail to lift us as high as spiritual ones will probably fail to convince the wavering and leave the reductionist utterly unmoved. John Hick wryly concluded that the universe has been created to contain just enough evidence to convince the believer that there is a God but not quite enough to convert the sceptic!
However, I have come to the conclusion that a lot really does hang on the decision that we make on this issue.
It’s not just a question of our physical and mental health, and there is a great deal of evidence (Koenig et al) to suggest that religion is good for our state of mind in this world never mind the next. Nor of the efforts religious people make to be of service to others.
There’s also some less clear-cut evidence (see Batson et al for investigations that do justice to the real complexities of this issue) to suggest their efforts are somewhat greater in this respect than the efforts of those with no religion.
Certainly there is enough evidence to make a psychologically sophisticated atheist ask:
If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God.
(Haidt: page 211)
Even more importantly it’s a question of the expectations we harbour about our future, based on our estimate of our capabilities and our assessment of the current reality. These expectations, of course, help form the future.
This needs unpacking. An analogy will help.
Research strongly suggests that pessimists, and even depressed people, are more realistic about the present (See Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness‘ for example). On the other hand, optimists and happy people exaggerate, for example, the degree to which they are liked by others or the level of skill they have. They are less realistic: they see the world through rose tinted spectacles.
The sceptical materialist might well conclude “Case closed! You just shot yourself in the foot. I need read no further. You’re all deluded then.” I’m afraid (s)he couldn’t be more wrong!
If we take a snapshot of the lives of these two kinds of people say ten years later, what are we likely to find? You’ve probably guessed it. The optimists, untrammelled by low expectations, will probably have made something better of their lives on most measures such as the quality of their relationships or their level of health. The pessimists are usually very much where they started and generally much worse off than the optimists. A lot of information can be gleaned about the effects of a pessimistic or unhappy style from Seligman’s book (see also the link to the Authentic Happiness website on the front page).
In my view, comparing optimists with pessimists is very much the same thing as comparing those who believe in God with those who believe in nothing (which of course is also an act of faith). To divide the ‘camps’ in this way simply into religious and non-religious would be too simplistic of course. Some spiritual beliefs are narrow, constricting and/or pessimistic about the human predicament. Some materialistic worldviews have warmer perspectives and rosier expectations.
It will none the less be found, I feel, if the evidence is systematically sought and examined dispassionately, that, on average, people with a sense of the transcendent, because they have a more positive view of what they can achieve individually and collectively, will enhance their own and their communities’ lives significantly more each decade than will those who, because they take a completely materialistic view of things, have lower expectations of themselves, of others and of what can be achieved. This is an empirical question: it needs to be properly researched. Ken Ring’s work is already pointing strongly in that direction. I have also explored this at length from another angle in a longer sequence of posts.
Unless someone can produce compelling evidence to the contrary I intend to go on believing the words attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
As ye have faith, so shall your powers and blessings be.
(Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Vol IV: p 217: )
The Free-Rider Problem
There is one rather disturbing implication of all this.
If this idea is correct, that faith in the transcendent lifts our game and the level of well-being of the communities we live in, the person with a sceptical take on the afterlife, whether (s)he likes it or not, whether that is the intention or not, could well be making a contribution that falls short of his or her capacity as a result. When civilisation is getting as close to the edge of self-destruction as it is at the moment, every little short fall matters and could make the difference between collective survival or collective suicide.
In the worst case scenario, where the falling short is very great, someone who is sceptical to the point of cynicism, or even nihilism (this touches on extremism of all kinds, atheist as well as religious, and will have to wait for another time for a more adequate treatment), could become that bane of all organisations – the free-rider – who reaps the benefits of other people’s efforts without contributing his or her fair share! According to Philip Ball in his book ‘Critical Mass‘, the effect on an organisation of carrying too many such people is to make it unfit to survive.
He writes (page 333):
So why do firms fail? . . . . Once it grows big enough, it becomes a haven for free-riders who capitalize on the efforts of others. So the firm becomes gradually riddled with slackers, until suddenly the other workers decide they have had enough and jump ship. . . . The failure is self-induced.
It is perhaps stretching a point to extrapolate from firms to civilisations, where jumping ship is more like moving to China than changing jobs, but we know that civilisations do fail (See Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse‘). If there is any truth in this extrapolation, it could therefore mean that our collective survival depends upon enough people waking up to the transcendent, regardless of how the costs of extremism at both ends of the spectrum eventually stack up.
We need to find out what we think for ourselves
I believe it would be very difficult indeed to reach a conclusion about whether faith in a transcendent dimension makes me a better citizen or not. The issue matters so much though that we should not accept what we’ve been told simply on the authority of other people.
It is worth bearing in mind that nihilism is as much an act of faith as faith in God. If too much nihilism spread across too many people could annihilate us, surely, in all conscience, this is a matter of life and death now and bears painstaking and careful investigation, a scrupulously dispassionate weighing of all the evidence, before finally making up our minds? Bahá’ís believe in the inescapable responsibility of all of us to investigate the truth for ourselves. If you have a thirst to understand these issues you will find much food for thought (though water would of course be more use in quenching a thirst!) at the Baha’i World Centre site as well as through the other links on the front page of this blog.
After such strenuous investigation by everyone, how many of us would then be left to say with any sense of certainty there is no God, no soul, no afterlife?