As humans, some naturally find it hard to believe that when you die you simple cease to exist. This naturally occurring revulsion at the concept of non-existence is claimed by some to be the cause of religion. Thus religion, according to them, is nothing more than human creativity producing a form of hope by claiming continued existence after death.
The claim of religion being merely human creation is a speculated hypothesis that afterlife theologies are merely just products of the human imagination. The way to disprove these speculations, is by investigating the common human phenomenon of belief in continued existence after death and why does it occur, and assessing what we know for sure, what is probable, and what is impossible.
It is interesting to note that animals do not appear to give any consideration for a life after death, but this is not significant, since animals do not possess the capacity to think abstractly (i.e. they cannot think or evaluate concepts and they cannot conceive of anything outside their direct experience). The afterlife is a significant concept to human beings because we have the capacity to conceptualise ourselves due to self-awareness, and think using reason about the causes of things and what is beyond that which we can directly observe. Human thought allows us to conceptualise ourselves, our causes and what we are – therefore humans are naturally going to ponder such questions.
The First reason for why humans question what is beyond death – Rational thought and self-awareness
– Rational thought
Is there more to our existence then just our physical bodies?
If there is, then does this extra-bodily existence continue beyond the destruction of the material body, indeed, did it even start before the formation of the body?
If it does, then what becomes of it, where does it go? What does it see?
Rational thought and self- awareness ultimately give rise to these rational questions. This is due to two unique features of human beings, the first being the abilities to rationalise (sensation of reality followed by linking sensation to previous concepts and building new conceptions) & reason (seeking the causes to observed reality – which is part of the rational process), and the second being self-awareness (the ability to include oneself in one’s conceptual models of the world).
– Self-Awareness – detecting the existence of the soul.
Self-awareness is not a distinct ability, but actually the result of the fact that we can sense reality, and build conceptual models of it. These conceptual models form, in its most literal sense, our understanding of reality itself.
Self-awareness allowed humans to realise that they are more than just automatons, because they can see themselves seeing, hear themselves hearing and feel themselves feeling – we act not like machines with switches (e.g. computers) that merely just detect input and react, we actually EXPERIENCE the world around us. There are two ways we detect the existence of a part of us that is usually called ‘the soul;
Observing our own observation
Our eyes may detect light, like PC webcams; but unlike computers, we don’t just receive electrical impulses – we actually ‘see’ ourselves seeing, we ‘hear’ ourselves hearing, we even see ourselves imagining and hear ourselves thinking (i.e. we can observe our own brains at work). We do not just make calculations about things. We ‘see’ ourselves thinking and we ‘feel’ like doing things, or not.
If all there was to our existence was merely our physical body, then it would be reasonable to conclude that our existence terminates with the end of our physical body’s existence. But the fact that we experience things means that we are not just reactive machines indicates that there exists an entity in addition to our body. This entity is the ‘pilot’ of our bodies and is something that steers us. This ‘pilot’ seems to be that which hears, sees and senses parallel to our brain receiving the electrical impulses from stimuli. This ‘pilot’ seems to be detached from ourselves and not affected us losing a limb or suffering physical injury. It was probably deduced that this intangible element constitutes the real ‘US’, and is referred to in most cultures as ’the soul’.
Since the soul is detached from tangible matter, then the question naturally arises as to what happens to the soul after the physical body ceases to maintain the electro-chemical reaction we call ‘living’ or ‘animation’? Whatever the case may be, some kind of continued existence by the ‘experiencer’ is expected, but not known in what form it would take.
Another case for the existence of the soul, is the existence of uncompelled choice making existing in the human being. It could be argued that a human being’s choice making is the result of natural calculation processes determining the best possible action to take, but the fact that individuals in the same situation can undertake different actions shows that this is not the case. Alternatively, some people explain why humans do different things in the same situation, as a result of their own genetic disposition. While it may be true that some individuals are more emotional then others (e.g. who might over react in response to an emotion), and some are more intelligent then others, genes do not determine what a individual will decide in any given situation as genes are incapable of storing information specific to every conceivable human situation an individual would encounter. The concept of free-will is well known, and to date, every political philosophy and system is based upon the understanding that humans possess free will.
The free will is most noticed when human beings override their dispositions, or strong emotions – based upon a choice to choose a lesser emotionally compelling desire. This phenomenon, where human beings can override their internal ‘forces of nature’, is typical of the effects of free will.
Since all material objects subject eachother to mutual cause and effect, a will which is above external cause and effect can only suggest a non-material cause which would have an existence independent of the universe’s existence – i.e. a soul.
This is not just the first reason for questioning about a life after death, but it is also the natural inclination of the thinking human being.
Second reason for why humans question what is beyond death – Multiple Anthropological Religious Attestation.
As to what actually happens after death, the answer to this question is not rationally deducible (i.e. not deducible based upon observation) because we do not have direct experience of it before death. Therefore, knowing the real reality requires information to be delivered to us from that which created the Soul, or one who knows the reality about the soul, universe and what is beyond it (i.e. the creator). This requires Revelation- and it is (historically) because of revelation that the entire belief in an afterlife came into existence amongst mankind.
As for differing religions having differing descriptions of the afterlife- Islam is the only belief that provides an answer which explains the anthropology of religion comprehensively and consistently. Islam explains th Muhammed (pbuh) was not the first Prophet sent by God; but other prophets came and delivered the same message. Unfortunately due to human emotional tendencies combined with a naturally tendency for the human thinking in various civilisations to decline into shallow thinking, a lot of human societies distorted their original beliefs and these beliefs became corrupted which led to the differing accounts of what happens after death throughout the world. (e.g. the most recent example was the Prophet Jesus’ (pbuh) teaching which became corrupted by later Christian preachers influenced by Pagan culture).
Third reason for why humans question what is beyond death – Meaning and Justice and the human instinct to sanctification.
The after life is not about hope; it is about continuation, meaning and justice. If humans only believed that this was the only life they had, they would be more self-centred, shallow and short-term in their goals, since someone would not know when they will die, it is better to get enough enjoyment as one can out of ‘the moment’. Since it matters not if someone gets benefit at other peoples expense, as long as one is advantaged in this, the only, life. People would not despair if they only lived this life, but the natural human instinct to revere that which is greater than oneself, caused people to ask for the significance of their own existence, and they must have realised that their relatively short lives must have more significance than merely eating, breeding and dying.
Suffice to say, the afterlife could not be invented, since humans observed that people who die, decay. Since no one knows what a soul is, they could not imagine what existence would be like without a body. But the concept of it is necessary for humans to believe in, since it answers a lot of the questions humans naturally realise need to be answered when looking at themselves, morality and the natural world.
Belief in a hereafter cannot be proven rationally independent of revelation, however, the plausibility for the existence of the hereafter can be demonstrated by the fact that it explains human phenonmena that cannot be explained otherwise. It is the ONLY argument that can be used to provide a comprehensive explanation to the observed aspects of human existence within a material universe.
Humans question into the existence of an afterlife due to
- an rationally detectable non-material component of ourselves
- multiple independent theologies from different parts of the world affirming its existence
- accountability of our actions and morality i.e. a metaphysical cause and effect
Thus in conclusion, the belief in a hereafter is not only plausible, but based upon the existence of the unknown quantity called ‘a soul’, justice within the universe, the meaning and value of actions- as well as the anthropologically well documented phenomenon of afterlife theologies which, although posit variations of an account of the afterlife, all seem to generally agree on the same assertion – an afterlife for humans exists beyond our current and present reality.
Quran 41:53 “In time We will show them Our Signs in the utmost Horizons and within themselves, so that it will become clear to them that this Qur’an is indeed the Truth. Is it not enough for them to know that your Lord is Witness to all things (including this proclamation)?”