MANY PEOPLE WOULD RATHER DIE THAN THINK; IN FACT, MOST DO. — BERTRAND RUSSELL

Apologetics VII: immortality and consciousness, part II

As promised, here is the second installment addressing arguments for and against the immortality of humans from Handbook of Christian Apologetics. The authors divide their 25 arguments for life after death into three categories: arguments from authority, reason and experience. There’s no way I can, nor feel the need to, address every single one of these, and indeed, only a scant few of them deserve serious consideration.

  1. They begin with the argument from “consensus,” which basically says that since “nearly all cultures and the vast majority of all individuals who have ever lived have voted for (believed in) life after death,” then immortality is probably true. They give the example that, “For although it is not true that ‘forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong'” it’s less likely that 40 are. Of course, this argument from consensus is precisely parallel to arguments for God, that, since most of the world believes, the chances are better than not that a deity of some kind exists. As we know through history, however, the majority can both be wrong and misguided at the same time. At one time, the majority of people in the world were OK with the institution of slavery, and some even justified it through their holy texts. At one time, the majority of all people thought the world was flat. The majority, at one time, thought the planets revolved around the Earth. At one time, the majority of people living in an ancient Greece and Rome got their consolation from gods that we, today, balk  at and mock. On all counts, how wrong they were.
  2. The argument from Sages attempts to stack the deck toward belief by stacking the number of prophets and religious officials against the unbelievers. Here, the authors list 19 sages or believing thinkers against 10 unbelievers. But again, weighing the number of believers in history with the number of prominent unbelievers says nothing about the truth of any claim about immortality. But if it’s a numbers game we’re after, here are 50 prominent atheists down through history, and I can add Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Barker, John Stewart Mill, Omar Khayyám and many others.
  3. The argument from the authority of Jesus on the after life is weaker than the previous argument from sages, which, by the way, already included the authority of Jesus within the authors’ list of 19. Here, and for no good reason, the authors pull out Jesus from the likes of Buddha and Muhammad when a clear reason for doing so has not been established, other than the authors’ own belief that the whole of the gospels accurately portrays what Jesus did and said. And that point is an untenable one indeed.
  4. Since the authors admit that the next three arguments, from conservation of energy, evolution and dead cow, are weak, I won’t give them an airing here.
  5. .
  6. .
  7. On the argument from magic, the authors say this one is so “pervasive and obvious that we miss it by taking it for granted.” Good! Perhaps, we’ll move into some serious arguments now. “The conclusion of this argument is that there exists in us an immaterial soul, which, since it is not made of matter, need not be obligated to the laws of matter, including mortality.” The authors then tell us how we on a daily basis use the power of mind over matter to perform such law-bending actions as levitating. Now, before I read on, I thought they had been witness to some conjuring tricks that I had not, since “levitating” usually is a term associated with floating. Man floating without the means of a blimp or hot air balloon would be a feat indeed! But no, the authors are talking about jumping. That’s right: suspending the laws of nature to lift ourselves into the air or to break gravity’s code with our minds by picking up an object off the floor. This they absurdly call “real magic.” Perhaps, in their attempts to equate the mind of man with the soul, the authors forgot that millions of ants perform this “magic,” and quite astonishingly, by carrying items much heavier than their own body weight every single day, and with more efficiently than man. Frogs jump. Most birds make a living out of suspending themselves in the air for very long periods of time. I don’t hear anyone championing the magic-wielding abilities of other creatures in the animal kingdom. Yet, the authors forget to mention that when we jump, we are automatically brought back down to earth when gravity acts on our bodies. Still, the authors continue: “The evidence (Didn’t see any evidence) is so obvious that one wonders who the real ‘primitive’ is: the savage who believes in spirits or the modern materialist who does not, and who cannot understand the difference between mind and brain, spirit and matter, active programmer and passive program, mover and moved.” I will grant the authors one point: I don’t think they explained this argument very well (or the argument should have been trashed altogether), and introducing the word “magic,” with all its connotations, doesn’t help the case. But still, to credit the soul with processes that are handled quite effectively by the mind is to ignore every biology textbook written in the last 500 years.
  8. The next, Plato’s argument from soul’s survival of its diseases, amounts to a tautology, and is thus, ignored.
  9. The following two assume the soul’s existence right from the start and thus, beg the question.
  10. .
  11. The argument from two immaterial operations, thinking and willing, seem to be a reiteration of the argument from consciousness, which I addressed previously.
  12. Here is the first serious philosophical argument thus far for immortality. It says that “If materalism is true, if the soul is only the brain, if there is no spirit, no human soul and no God, then the brain has been programmed by mere chance. … Therefore materialism cannot be true. It refutes itself. It destroys credentials. If the brain is nothing but blind atoms, we have no reason to trust it when it tells us about anything, including itself and atoms. Thus, if there is nothing but atoms, we have no reason to believe there is nothing but atoms.” Well, it’s not “programmed” by anything, especially not chance. That would be absurd. Neither are we evolved to the point we are, a highly developed species, by mere chance, and time and again, apologists use that word, “chance,” to attempt to ridicule the idea of evolution by natural selection. It’s absolutely not chance that has produced our highly developed brains, but a slow and gradual process that heaped advantageous selections over advantageous selections across millennia.
  13. The next three arguments, as the authors admit, are hardly convincing because they presuppose the existence of God. Thus, they begin from a tenuous position and are ignored.
  14. .
  15. .
  16. The argument from ultimate justice says that “Since justice is often not done in the short run in human life on earth, either (1) justice is done in the long run — in which case there must be a ‘long run,’ a life after death — or else (2) this absolute demand we make for moral meaning and ultimate justice is not met by reality, but is a mere subjective quirk of the human psyche …” The authors then summon the famous quote from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s shortened in the apologist book, but the full quote is: “If there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful.” On the point about justice, actually “short run” justice is delivered every day in courtrooms across the world. And of the higher “long run” justice, this sort of justice seems only deliverable and relevant if we assume a god, as the authors do. The rest of us don’t demand any kind of higher justice, other than what the courts dole out, and we don’t drink from any well of morality to conduct our lives in a civil way. There exists psychopaths and other neurotic and emotionally disturbed individuals who will commit crimes with or without a justice system to punish them. The rest of us “behave” in polite society because it’s advantageous for us to do so, for if we don’t, unpleasant consequences could occur. It’s only a defeatest and destructive view of humanity that assumes we can’t carry on perfectly well without a divine authority embedding moral principles within us, for they are already there. Or else, believers must be ready to admit, unequivocally, that without God or Jesus or Allah, they would be bad people, and perhaps worse, that they need God or Jesus or Allah to be good. What self-denigrating and absurd thinking this is. Christopher Hitchens has eloquently made the case for morality without a divine authority, again, referencing Dostoevsky. Here is a video in which he says, “Is it not rather the case that with God everything is permissible. That once a primate believes he has God on his side, that primate is capable of anything. The suicide bombing community, more or less 100 percent religious. The genital mutilation community, practically 100 percent religious. The injunctions and warrants in the Bible, in the text itself, for slavery, for genocide, inescapably right there and acted upon and in the name of God …”
  17. The argument from “The Meaning of Life” is the point in this long list in which the authors appeal to our sense of purpose or a plan that must be at the crux of why we are here in the first place. But, upon searching for the truth in life, any honest believer or skeptic must be willing to accept facts that may seem unwelcome or unfavorable to them. We are all, of course, quite free to believe in anything as long as we are OK with the wasted time, money, resources and years off our lives that such a belief might entail if that belief happens to turn out not to be true. But let’s grant for a second that immortality is true. How are we to know that whatever “purpose” a deity might have for our lives is favorable to us. We, I think, assume too much in suggesting that sky gods might have our best interests in mind, that just because a higher power may exist doesn’t mean he’s of the benevolent kind.
  18. Pascal’s Wager: This one is barely worth mentioning, but it’s akin to this: If Christianity is true, what do you have to lose? Believe and go to heaven. If Christianity is not true, you have lost nothing. But if you don’t believe, and it all turns out to be true, you face eternal separation from God and have lost mightily. This is what we call hedging our bets, and it’s not true that if you believe wrongly, you have lost nothing, for you have lost the aforementioned time, money, resources, years off your life, etc. First, belief is not something I can do as a matter of policy, as Richard Dawkins has said. We can’t make ourselves believe something, at least I can’t. Second, it is a bet, after all, as Dawkins asked: “Would you bet on God’s valuing dishonestly faked belief (or even honest belief) over honest skepticism?” If you do take the wager and try to beat the odds, you had better hope that god is not of the omniscient kind or he will surely see through the game.
  19. The argument from Sehnsucht (Longing): In short, “There exists in us one desire that nothing in this life can satisfy,” this “mysterious” longing. C.S. Lewis wrote about this extensively. But if there is a longing that cannot be fulfilled by love or music or literature or time with family and friends, I have yet to find it, and have felt no special transcendent longing.
  20. The Argument From Presence is mumbo jumbo to me and doesn’t begin to say anything tenable about immortality. Here, the authors seem to have substituted “soul” for “subject” and again, without basis, assumed that the “presence of a subject does transcend that of an object” (which I take to mean the body). Regardless, this argument is quite ambiguous and can’t begin to mount any sort of defense of the after life.
  21. In the argument from love, the authors say, “Death did not change the meaning of Socrates; Socrates changed the meaning of death.” So it was with Jesus for the authors. But again, they seem to begin with their final argument, and arguments can’t flow backward from that which is trying to be proven.
  22. Near-death experiences, ghosts (Oddly referred to as “postmortem presences”) and mystical experiences aren’t worth more than a few words. I take it that since these appear so late in the list, the authors give great weight to these arguments. But conduct the thought experiment about NDEs for a second: suppose you are within your last moments of life. You may not be breathing well and thus, aren’t getting much oxygen to your brain. Tubes are everywhere. For all it’s tragedy, it is a surreal moment. The brain is a more powerful organ than we are aware. As has well been documented, it has the ability to create realities that may or may not exist in real time, and in stressed conditions such as these, this ability can become heightened. So, no, proofs from near-death experiences do not prove or argue for an afterlife. They argue for the power of the brain to create alternate realities in attempts to deal with or process current situations, not for other-worldly experiences.
  23. .
  24. .
  25. The argument from Christ’s resurrection. The writers term this as their “most convincing” case for life after death, but since, again, they begin by assuming what they are trying to prove throughout the book, it’s one of the least convincing, and here are myriad life-death-rebirth deity tales in religious lore. John Dominic Crossan’s “The Historical Jesus” provides some perspective on what Jesus actually did and said. As it happens, the authors of this apologetics book mention Crossan only once on page 189 and call Crossan a “current media darling among the doubters,” yet fail to address any of Crossan’s many and detailed analyses from the biblical and extra-biblical evidence about what Jesus said and did. And while Jesus most likely uttered parables about the “kingdom of God” numerous times, it’s unclear whether Jesus meant a future apocalyptic kingdom or a kingdom of social transformation. The authors here, obviously, assume the former without any basis or evidence for doing so because it supports their claim that the real Jesus had something to say about a future kingdom of God, which they read to be talking about heaven, or perhaps, some new heaven and new earth, as in the Bible. As for the resurrection itself, we know that Matthew, Luke and John most likely sprang from the gospel of Mark, and many scholars feel Mark 16:8 is there the actual texts ends, while Mark 9-16 were added later once the Jesus tale was more fully established.

Thus, when looking at all of these arguments for immortality as a whole, only one (#12) makes any kind of serious claim about life after death, and as I’ve shown, it’s a shallow claim at that. Next, as I’m wrapping up this series, I will look at the authors’ claims for heaven and hell, free will and concluding thoughts.

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About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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