“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand”.
A question that has confounded mankind for millennia, what happens when we give up the ghost down here on terra-firma, when the heart expires, the brain stops receiving oxygen and your friends start putting together a top ten list of your favorite songs for your no doubt bleak funeral? Many people still believe that our time on Earth is spent in some kind of vestibule to heaven, a kind of waiting room where we stay while the Almighty like a divine accountant gets out his calculator and starts subtracting all our sins from the good things we’ve done. According to some people, heaven isn’t big enough for all the religions, and even in today’s politically correct world the eternal ethereal hotel in the clouds isn’t exactly an inclusive joint. But there is more to after-life theories than the precept of heaven.
In Hinduism, there is cycle of death and rebirth called ‘samsara’. When a person dies, their soul is reborn in different body. Many ancient Greeks believed when they died the soul separated from the body. In Orphism, an ancient Greek religion, there was life after death. Graves have been uncovered with tablets in them that gave instructions for the dead for when they entered the afterlife. The Underworld was not easy to navigate, so the Greeks might have left some notes for the passed over person. But not all Greeks thought alike. The philosopher Plato was perhaps less superstitious, and he believed we had a soul before we were born and we had one after we died. He once wrote that the trauma of birth makes us forget what we had learned in our past life. He seemed to believe in an eternal spirit, but not exactly one that has to navigate beasts in the Underworld. This dualism he talked about of soul and body would take root in many beliefs to come. Some scholars say for Plato our soul is our true form, our true self. The ancient Germanic cultures held the belief that there was some kind of underworld and it wasn’t a very nice place. Another assumption came later, and that was if there is a terrible place to be, there must be a nicer place, and that as we know wasn’t down below but up in the sky. The Hotel Heaven as mentioned earlier but then we had philosophical points of view that dealt with a life-death dualism that inside us was spirit. This was based on reason more than crude superstition. Empirical truths might hold some weight with religious people, of course, but perhaps not when God and the afterlife are concerned. We must also remember that men in the clouds with lustrous white beards is more of a whimsical version of life after death, and it’s arguably superstitious when you consider the works of serious theologians. Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century for instance argued that because humans can think of abstract ideas without actually needing to see things, basically that we have imaginations, the mind didn’t need the body. Like many before him, Aquinas believed the soul to be separate. Aquinas was one of many Christian philosophers that attempted to reconcile more down to Earth philosophy with religious beliefs. When the body died, something lived on, but that had nothing to do with men with pitchforks or angels playing harps.
Now let’s look at Buddhism. We have all heard of the concept of reincarnation, but often it’s misunderstood as being a reward or punishment for something we did in this present life that affects what kind of creature you will return as. Sometimes called metempsychosis, what this really means is not that we will come back as a cockroach for cheating on our girlfriend, but that there are realms you can come back in as the same soul that death is a cycle and you can with good enough karma achieve Nirvana, the end of the cycle, no more rebirth and therefore no more worldly pain. Someone might argue again that the soul does indeed exist as separate from the body and when one body dies this enters another cycle in another body but the soul remains the same, just trying to achieve a state of nirvana. Another belief perhaps similar is “eternal return”, which can be found in ancient Egyptian texts and also ancient Indian texts. Everything in the universe is cyclic, which includes our existence. If you believe it is a sin to cause others pain and we all know pain, and that this can lead to not going to heaven, then perhaps you will act better. We might also add that for some people causing pain to others gets them into heaven, that is the Christian crusades, religious extremism, countless fundamentalists today that have little respect for certain people’s right to freedom. People disagree on what gives us good karma, what gets us silver stars from God, and this poses a significant human problem and has done so for thousands of years. What we are trying to say is that belief in an afterlife can perhaps be positive for you and the society in which you live and the world as a whole, but it might also lead to disharmony.
Brian Cox might tell you that you don’t have a soul, but he admits science doesn’t fully understand how consciousness works. As a physicist, for him it’s all about energy and nothing to him shows that we have this extra piece of matter in our bodies that is a soul. But Cox also admits that Atoms (what we are made of) can be confounding things. Do we really understand how the constituents of the atom interact? Perhaps the soul exists somewhere in subatomic particles. Cox admits that science can be a work in progress, he only says from what he knows right now he doesn’t believe in a soul. Religious folks might also ask, what came before the Big Bang and this universe making particle? No one knows. Science admits this, while religions are often more stubborn, dogmatic. Ironically, leapers of faith are often surer than scientists. Perhaps people should keep leaping in directions their entire lives? That is what science would say, but scientists can be stubborn too at times. This is the fleshy machinery of the brain and the chemicals that oil the many parts. But, and this is very important, we have ‘us’, meaning we have personality, we have character, some might even say an aura. Some thinkers, serious thinkers, say the fact that there is this identity means we might have a soul. If the physical part dies, what happens to that special part that made us. Then we are back to where is the energy and we might ask if this soul can only exist with the physical parts. Maybe we have a soul, but it dies. We are special, but not immortal. If you’ve ever heard of the philosopher George Berkeley (namesake of the California University) you might know he was interested in what happens right after death. It is said he once asked one of his students to hang him and take him down just after he started dying. Apparently this experiment didn’t do much except cause him lots of pain. But did we know that research in the USA said 18 percent of people brought back from death after a heart attack had a near death experience. This for some is proof of life after death, while some scientists say we just go into a dream mode. Others say the Pineal Gland releases the substance DMT at death and if you’ve ever taken that stuff you will know fantastic, sometimes unexplainable things can happen. Science says our brains definitely work for a while after the heart stops, so something is going on. We don’t think near death trips are a good example of life after death. Others believe in the 21 grams theory, that after death a person loses 21 grams of its body.
We might go out on a limb here and say that if there is a soul maybe it can only be found by understanding the engineering of this universe down to the smallest level. Maybe there is more to see. If we have a soul maybe it’s in the small print, and perhaps we just haven’t been able to read that yet. Perhaps even science will reconcile with religion in the future but in ways we still can’t fathom. Others might just call us temporary space trash made of carbon and proteins not connected and not eternally soulful. We will at least live on in a way in an atoms sense. So in some ways, there is always some life after death, just not with “WE” involved. We can’t answer the mysteries. So, we can safely say we don’t know.