What Are the Best Defenses of the Afterlife?

Keith Augustine and Michael Martin are putting together an anthology of papers arguing that there is no afterlife.  They commissioned a paper from me.  I am happy to enroll as a culture warrior, so I’m planning to co-author a piece with my colleague Sonya Bahar –the director of the Center for Neurodynamics here at UMSL.

Now I’m looking for the best recent defenses of the afterlife, in order to make them my target.  Keith Augustine helpfully suggested looking at David Lund’s _Persons, Souls and Death _ (McFarland, 2009).  Does anyone else know of other good quality, philosophically sophisticated defenses of mental life after brain death?


  1. I make an argument in my book Metaphysics and the Meaning of Life that there is an afterlife. The argument goes as follows: 1) It is always valid to argue from actuality to possibility (a logical principle dating to Medieval times), 2) I exist now therefore it is possible for me to exist again. While this does not prove the immortality of the soul, it switches the burden of proof to the other side and, I believe it is an overwhelming burden. The argument is given on page 282. The book is available on Amazon. Good luck to you.

  2. Eric Thomson

    I didn’t exist before I was born, therefore it is possible for me to not exist again. While this does not prove the mortality of the soul, it switches the burden of proof to the other side and, I believe it is an overwhelming burden. Seems a sufficient reductio of that argument.

    Second, I’m not sure how establishing a possibility (assuming that argument does actually establish it, which is actually not clear as I argue below) shifts the burden of proof. Shifting the burden of proof requires that you establish the primae facie plausibility, not just possibility of something.

    Also, it isn’t clear that the stated “argument” is even valid. My soul is actually immortal, therefore it is possible that my soul is immortal. That could be turned into a valid argument. From the claim that you actually exist now it follows that it is possible that you exist now, not that it is possible that you will exist again (at least using the actual–>possible principle).

    Without a lot more, I don’t see what is compelling here.

    Congrats Guiteiro, that sounds like a fun volume that they are putting together!

  3. Eddy Nahmias

    Sounds like an interesting anthology. I don’t know where the arguments are, but I hope someone in the anthology will be addressing arguments for the possibility (or actuality) of an afterlife on the assumption that physicalism is true. One can be a physicalist about minds and selves but believe they can survive after the brain/body dies, first because God (if he exists) could reconstitute the brain and body (perhaps in a more perfect but still physical way) in a physical heaven. This in fact seems to be the most natural way to interpret the Bible (after all, Jesus is said to rise *bodily* from the tomb) and to interpret what people want from an afterlife (see below).

    Or second, one can argue from functionalist premises that the self can survive after the brain dies by being “duplicated” in a computer program or in a virtual world. I’m sure some futurists have talked about such possibilities.

    Personally, I think the theistic possibility is highly unlikely to be actual. And the self as software possibilities are unlikely to be actualized. But too often people assume that one disadvantage of physicalism is that it rules out the possibility of life after death. On the contrary, it might make the possibility more understandable. After all, what sense can we make of non-physical souls interacting in any meaningful way? (Don’t we want to *see* grandma and *talk* to Einstein in the afterlife and not, as Cartesian souls seem bound to do, just sit around contemplating math and logic for eternity?)

  4. Harry Erwin

    One of the questions studied by neuroscience over the last century is–in old-fashioned terms–whether there is any evidence for a separable soul. There is none–damage to the brain damages the mind. Hence if you want to argue for an afterlife, you have to address that issue.

  5. Susan

    Try The Metaphysics of Death, in the Stanford Series in Philosophy, edited by John Fischer and Mortal Beings: On the Metaphysics and Value of Death, Stockholm Studies in Philosophy by Jens Johansson.

  6. You make a couple of points, and I’d like to respond, albeit briefly, because I’m sure we will end up just agreeing to disagree.
    As for your first point, which to you is more certain: “I exist now” or “I did not exist before I was born”? That should indicate which is the stronger argument.
    As as regards your second point, I do believe the burden of proof is switched. My existence is already a possibility based on the fact that I currently exist. The argument only illustrates that the burden is, was, has always been, on the other side. It’s the difference between saying there will be another lion or there will be a unicorn.
    You are holding me to some pretty high standards, and we all know it’s easy to pick out weaknesses in another person’s argument. Can you give an example of a convincing one for either side?

  7. Marcus Arvan

    Just an intriguing thought that has occurred to me. Consider the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (the so-called “multiverse” hypothesis that many quantum physicists are taking seriously these days). If functionalism is true, then if my bodily death in *this* branch of the multiverse has a “close continuer” in another branch, then my consciousness should “jump”, as it were, from my body in this branch to the body in that branch (without it being at *all* evident from my first-personal perspective that I have jumped universes). If the multiverse is infinite (much as in Lewis’ plurality of worlds hypothesis), then it follows that we’re immortal. In short: functionalism + many worlds = immortality. [Notice: this is more or less Lewis’ own solution. If I recall correctly Lewis thought — I don’t remember where — that the best test of one’s immortality is near-death encounters]. Anyway, this has always seemed to me to be the most promising idea.

  8. Marcus Arvan

    I don’t think the interpretation is confused at all. You’re assuming a special “this-ness” to my consciousness that I think a functionalist should deny. I’m adopting here something like Parfit’s view that *all there is* to personal identity is psychological continuity. If we accept this Parfit-like view, then if there’s psychological continuity *across* multiverse branches, then in every relevant sense *I* survive across multiverse branches.

  9. lukstafi

    But there is no use in calling the situation a “jump”. The Schroedinger’s cat cannot die subjectively, no need to invoke a “jump” to that effect, but it dies to half of its master’s “reality cloud”. The cat would experience a “jump” if it remembered going into a blue box, remember having a fit or something, and woke up in a red box. There are no unobservable phenomenons (epi or not).

  10. GNZ

    This is a theory that I developed independently after reading some quantum mechanics.

    In a sense your consciousness is experiencing a cloud so there is no need for any sort of jump effect. Sad news is that you could loose all your limbs and be incapacitated… in fact there is no reason to think this is not pretty much guaranteed at some point… who wants to live forever indeed.

  11. Acewell

    “Now I’m looking for the best recent defenses of the afterlife, in order to make them my target.”

    Regardless of your position, this is the wrong way to approach a topic.

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