Is There Life After Death? A Conversation

By Sincere Kirabo

Doing a Philosophy doctoral dissertation on the subject of Immortality and the Mind-Body Problem, a devout Catholic who discovered me through a mutual friend sought my insight. Referencing dualism that posits the mind exists separately from the body, his research aims to show that the belief in a subjective post-mortem existence is reasonable.

I’m no expert on the topic by any means but he welcomed hearing my skepticism that uses materialist foundations to suggest the brain is the source of the mind. When we look to the historical and behavioral origins of our ancestors, I noted, the premise that the mind exists separately from the body sounds charming; however, it is simply fairytale.

Consider the degree of ignorance our ancestors existed in. While varied in preciseness, many great scientific minds such as astrophysicist Carl Sagan and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins reckon that our human family, which includes the ancestral homo sapiens, have inhabited the earth for approximately 250,000 years.

Counteracting that figure with the smaller approximation of 100,000 years is the physician-geneticist and supervisor of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins—who also identifies as a Christian, rejecting the notion of Adam & Eve but accepting evolutionary theory. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, it’s 100,000 years. In all likelihood it’s more than this, but specifics doesn’t matter as it pertains to this intellectual exercise.

So then, imagine primitive humans—for at least 100,000 years, they conceived very often, and fetuses died or killed mothers during labor. Life expectancy probably wasn’t more than 20-25 years due to reasons such as agonizing teeth issues (attributed mainly to gross misusage).

Other contributing factors included turf wars over women, land, property, food, and widespread hunger. In addition, attention must focus on the presence of unknown microorganisms, volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and like disasters that would have been terrifying and mysterious considering primitive humans had no scientific knowledge to interpret their natural world.

Can you imagine the horror, confusion, dystopia of the first tens of thousands of years—the struggle, famine, food poisoning, indigenous war, weather, misery?

Slowly over time, primitive humans learned more about their surroundings; however, superstition is infused during this transition period as a means of comprehension. It’s innate in us to fear what we don’t understand and to hate what we cannot conquer. Perhaps if I play nice with the moving water, I won’t be drowned. It’s this type of thought that brings about reverence for the unknown. There must be someone controlling the sea.

Born from this train of thought is the invention of gods, unseen forces controlling what we do not understand. Perhaps if we supplicate the deities, we will be spared of this or that. Our ancestors began worshiping bears and other animals thought to be superior to humans fairly early on and I can appreciate why. Who’s responsible for these storms? Why is my child not moving? What is death? Why is death? Such questions were incomprehensible.

Have you ever seen The Invention of Lying, a 2009 film written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson? If not, check out the scene when Gervais’ character comforts his mother with a fabricated story of what happens when you die—a story he made up on the fly due to him seeing the hopelessness and despair displayed by his dying loved one. I analogize this scenario to what transpired all those years ago. The very notion of life after death was born out of ignorance, out of fear, out of consolation.

Gleaning from the aforementioned, we see why religions posit that immaterial and majestic realms exist behind the natural material realm in which we live. Despite how important these beliefs may be to religious theists, there isn’t any verifiable evidence to suggest they are anything more than primitive superstitions. Everything we know and continue to learn points to the conclusion that life is material. We do not possess anything like an immaterial or immortal soul or a disembodied mind.

Before getting into the evidence, allow me to emphasize that I use the word evidence to refer to that which is empirical and characteristic of the following:

(a) Testability — a hypothesis must be testable by other researchers.

(b) Consistency — when a hypothesis makes accurately consistent predictions it can become a valid theory of truth. The notion of god hasn’t passed that stage—which is why it is referred to as “the god hypothesis” as opposed to theory—a labeling associated with commonly accepted facts such as germs (germ theory), cells (cell theory), gravity (gravity theory) and evolution (evolutionary theory).

(c) Falsifiability — a hypothesis must be something that evidence could be provided for to prove that the claims upon which it fundamentally rests are untrue.

Having popular consensus is irrelevant to establish truth of evidence. It is actually a logical fallacy to think that anything must be truth simply because it is popular or commonly accepted. In argumentation theory, the Latin argumentum ad populum (“appeal to the people”) denotes this fallacy because it asserts a proposition to be true when many or most people believe it. In other words, the basic idea of the argument is-—If many believe so, it is so. The error is that a billion people could believe things such as religion, horoscopes, UFO’s, ghosts, and that Tupac is alive, but that widespread belief doesn’t make them true.

The evidence against the claim that our minds possess the capability of being immaterial and are not a product of our physical brains is unequivocal. When a person’s brain is stimulated by scientific tests, drugs or magnetic fields, and put in a particular physical state, that a person’s mental experience corresponds to what we know about that state.

Additionally, self-reports about particular mental experiences correspond to evidence about the particular physical state of their brains. This would be untrue if our minds and mental experiences are independent of our brains. Those who insist otherwise offer no means for testing and verifying their claim.

To a larger degree, all this appears true when the brain is injured through physical trauma or certain drugs. Some injuries destroy enough of the brain to end all mental experiences entirely. Others only affect particular mental-performance associations such as language usage or particular emotional responses. There is no reason for any of this to happen if our minds and mental state are independent of our brains. If an immaterial mind is what does our thinking, then brain injuries or change in brain functions shouldn’t produce any, or at least any significant, changes in our thinking.

This is also true of non-human animals. Like humans, their mental states can be mapped to a particular brain state whether through deliberate manipulation or injury. Every species studied demonstrates increasing mental abilities as they grow older and their brain becomes more complex, developing more neurons and connections between neurons. If mental capacities and mental states are immaterial and independent of the brain, there’s no reason for any of this to be true.

People who believe in immaterial minds don’t normally attribute this to non-human animals, yet they cannot explain how physical brains produce mental capacity and mental states in other animals but not in humans. All medical and scientific evidence points to our minds, our memories, and our personalities being products of our physical brains.

This is no less natural and no less material than how our physical bodies produce other processes like digestion. If this is true, it means that when our physical brains die, our minds, memories and personalities will also die. Since these are what make up who “we” really are, then the death of our physical brains means the death of us as well.

If there is any sort of immaterial soul, it’s not “us.” It doesn’t do our thinking. It doesn’t hold our memories. It doesn’t express our personalities. These facts make the existence of immaterial minds or souls irrelevant at best.

Sincere Kirabo is the social justice coordinator at the American Humanist Association. Sincere is a longtime humanist activist and writer. His work can be found on TheHumanist.com, Everyday Feminism, and Patheos, among other media.

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