The One Life
‘While life is yours, live joyously;
No one can avoid Death’s searching eye:
When this body of ours is burnt,
How can it ever return again?’
Carvaka, The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha
The idea that this is our one and only life is not new. The Carvaka school of ancient India (600 BCE), with its rejection of the contemporary Hindu notion of reincarnation, is just one historic example.
Here we will explore some of the reasons humanists might have for rejecting the idea of afterlives. In Week 3 we will explore the important questions: ‘Should we be afraid of death?’ and ‘If we are mortal, can we still live meaningful lives?’
Evidence we have only one life
Humanists believe this life is our one life: it is not a ‘dress rehearsal’. Relying on reason and evidence alone to decide what to believe, humanists conclude there is no life after our physical death.
‘All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. If we were not afraid of death, I do not believe the idea of immortality would ever have arisen.’
Bertrand Russell, What I Believe
Most beliefs about afterlives and connected practices were introduced long before scientific investigations established there is no need for reference to immaterial souls in understanding human beings.
Where’s the evidence for an afterlife?
Some people claim ‘evidence’ for afterlives: near-death experiences, ‘sightings’ of ghosts, and channeling via mediums. Humanists point out that scientific investigations have explained away such cases. Many ‘sightings’ are hoaxes or hallucinations; mediums can employ cold reading to trick people; oxygen deprivation accounts for so-called near-death experiences.
When people claim that certain things exist, such as afterlives, the burden of proof lies with those people. Humanists adopt the only rational position, namely, of not believing in something unless there is good evidence for its existence.
Reasons to be sceptical
Some humanists point out not merely that there are no good reasons to believe in afterlives, but also that there are good reasons not to believe in them.
The philosopher David Hume argued that we have evidence of what it might be like to be dead – when we are in dreamless sleep. In dreamless sleep our minds undergo a temporary extinction and so we can imagine what it might be like simply not to exist.
Some humanists highlight the fact that we have no recollection of any experience before we were born, so why think it would be any different after we die?
‘Look back on the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that Nature holds up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead.
Lucretius, from De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)
Most people now accept the scientific findings that mental properties are dependent on brain activity, for without it, all signs of conscious life are absent.
‘… not only the nature but the very existence of our conscious experiences depends on our having bodies. All the evidence of our own and other people’s lives overwhelmingly implies this… I see nothing… which shows that mental properties… can be possessed by anything which does not have a body.’
Hugh Mellor, Reply to Richard Swinburne, Thinking about Death
Further, there is simply no evidence that we can act with our minds alone.
‘Body acts are carried out by persons acting with their own bodies. All that a person can do or bring about in the physical world consists in, or is an indirect act resulting from, such direct acts. The absence of a body is therefore not only factual grounds for doubting whether a person exists – there’s no one there! It is also grounds for doubting whether such a bodiless entity could possibly be an agent.’
Anthony Flew, A Disembodied Life, Thinking about Death
Finally, the humanist can draw attention to cases where head injuries or dementia greatly change a person. When the brain is damaged, personality, and, in some sense, the whole person, can be destroyed. Our brains are essential to our identity.
Each new piece of scientific evidence we uncover about our nature adds further weight to the argument for a physical model of human beings. Of course, this might not persuade those who believe in afterlives, but they provide, for humanists, good evidence to feel secure in the rationality of, and evidential basis for, their beliefs.
In Week 3 we’ll explore why humanists believe an acceptance of our mortality can have positive consequences.
Question: Do you think humanists have persuasive rational arguments for not believing in an afterlife?