Course Notes on Life and Death/The Soul for Edexcel students

From the Specification for Paper 1:

Views about life after death across a range of religious traditions.

a) Immortality of the soul: soul as non-physical and spiritual and continuing to exist after death of body.

b) Rebirth: belief there is no unchanging soul and importance of karma.

c) Reincarnation: transmigration of souls and importance of karma.

d) Replica theory: notion that one can die in one body and continue to live in a different body while being the same person, including after death.

e) Resurrection: belief that God will restore the dead in bodily form to eternal life

With reference to the ideas of John Hick

Points for discussion about life after death

  • Relationship between mind and body, including variations of dualism and monism.
  • Life after death linked to moral reasoning, near death experiences, debates related to role of evidence, religious language.

With reference to the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.

Body and Soul

Plato (427 – 327 BC)

The Soul

  • Plato thought that the soul was a simple substance that had no parts and was therefore indestructible.
  • In his early dialogues (e.g. Phaedo) it appears to be a unity not divided into parts. Conflict is between soul and body not between different parts of the soul.
  • Later Plato: must be more than one element within the soul, otherwise we could never be in conflict with ourselves
  • It consists of 3 aspects or elements: reason (the higher soul), appetites (the lower soul) and will or spirit that ideally should always side with reason
  • Thus the soul becomes a kind of ‘mini-state’ which is either well-governed (by reason) or a kind of tyranny ruled by the appetites.
  • Uses image of the Charioteer (in the Phaedrus) to explain these ideas.
  • Image of the Charioteer : obedient white horse = will, unruly dark horse = appetites that need reining in, charioteer = reason
  • Plato has various arguments to prove the existence of the soul
  • Theory of Recollection (this is the most important argument to learn – though if you can also manage the other two arguments also mentioned a bit further on that would be useful too): the soul comes into this world with knowledge gained from a previous life in a disembodied state eg. In Meno gives example of slave boy with knowledge of mathematical proofs. Plato concluded that our soul, which is immortal and eternal, must have inhabited a realm of Ideas (the world of the Forms) before our birth, and still yearns to return to that realm after death as it is our true home. So when we see variations of the Forms in this world we recognise them through this process of recollection, or as Plato put it ‘What we call learning is only a process of recollection.’
  • Plato therefore believed that all genuine knowledge is innate and located within us, but that when we die our souls are reincarnated into new bodies and the shock of birth causes us to forget it all. Education is therefore not about learning new facts, but about ‘un-forgetting’, and the educator is not a teacher but a midwife.
  • BUT: the slave boy could just be child prodigy with natural talent for mathematics.
  • Theory of Opposites: argues that every quality comes into being from its own opposite, or at least depends on its opposite for existence e.g. something is big because there are smaller things. Therefore life and death are existent opposites, and since the body is mortal and subject to physical death, the soul must exist as its indestructible opposite.
  • BUT: assumption that the world is divided into pairs of opposites can be challenged eg. spirit and matter (an atheist would not believe that we have a spirit or soul).
  • In Phaedrus (a later dialogue) : a) soul is self-moving b) what is self-moving must always have moved, it cannot have a beginning c) what has no beginning can never have an end d) therefore the soul must be immortal.
  • BUT : initial premise (there is a soul and it is self-moving) is not proven but taken to be self-evident.
  • Plato’s overall theory of the soul is a classical dualist theory.
  • Views about life after death are:
  • Body is temporary and will decay.
  • Embodiment is a kind of ‘fall’.
  • After death, the soul is usually re-imprisoned in a body because it lacks knowledge of the realm of the Forms. So Plato was a dualist who believed in reincarnation.
  • BUT: if the realm of the Forms does not exist (and its existence does not seem obvious) this undermines Plato’s theory of the soul, and Aristotle came up with his famous Third Man argument against the existence of this realm. This argument runs as follows: if there exists in a realm of Forms a perfect Form of Man on which earthly men are modelled, this Form, to have any conceivable content, would have to be based on a Form of the Form of Man – and this too would have to be based on a higher Form on which the Forms of the Forms are based, and so on ad infinitum.
  • AND: Peter Geach has questioned what it might mean for the disembodied soul to see the Forms, as seeing is an act linked to the body and its senses. But in the realm of the Forms you no longer have a body.
  • AND: see also the problem of interaction described in the section on Descartes below.
  • NOTE: Plato’s insistence on the immortality and superiority of the soul creates problems for later Christianity (whose theologians were influenced by Greek philosophy) because none of this fits in with the idea of physical resurrection.

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Body and Soul

  • Also a dualist : there is matter and form, body and soul.
  • The soul is the animating principle of the body. It makes the living creature become what it is, makes it ‘actualize’ itself.
  • The soul imprints itself on matter in the same way that a seal imprints itself on wax.
  • The soul is not exclusively human : all living things (including plants) have one.
  • Plants have a nutritive and reproductive soul: they can take in food, grow and reproduce.
  • Animals have these qualities and a ‘sensitive’ soul: they can receive information through their 5 senses, process that information and make simple choices in order to survive.
  • Humans have these souls as well and a ‘rational’ soul that enables them to think and reason.
  • All of these souls do not remain separate within animals and mankind; the lower are contained in the higher, so the soul is one, not many.
  • UNLIKE Plato, there is no suggestion in Aristotle that the soul would be better off without the body. Both are mutually dependent on each other.
  • UNLIKE Plato, the soul does not gain its knowledge from a pre-existent state (the world of the Forms) but through the perceptions of this world that having a body makes possible. Of course, humans are also capable of reflecting on that knowledge and imagining new things.
  • Aristotle suggests that the rational soul, the intellect or nous might survive death but…
  • …NOTHING in Aristotle’s account points to the idea of the survival of a human soul with an individual personality.
  • BUT: later Christian commentators, attracted to the interdependence of soul and body in Aristotle (which fits rather better with the idea of resurrection), ignored or glossed over this difference.
  • A problem with Aristotle is that he comes very close with his teaching about soul and body to implying that because soul and body are mutually reliant on each other, that one cannot survive without the other. If it wasn’t for his ideas about nous, he would be closer to the monistic, materialistic perspective of Richard Dawkins.
  • AND: many modern scientists believe that it is the brain that gives rise to our thoughts and feelings and our sense of self, which challenges Aristotle’s view that intellectual thought or nous might be able to exist on its own outside the body.
  • AND: Aristotle’s view that only human beings are capable of reasoning and therefore have a rational soul does not fit with modern findings from research into animal behaviour, which suggest that some species (e.g. chimpanzees) are capable of rational thought as shown by their ability to communicate using ASL (American Sign Language). Chimpanzees are also thought to possess Theory of Mind – an awareness that other chimps are think beings like themselves.

Descartes (1596-1650)

Substance Dualism

  • Takes a sharply dualist view.
  • Our essence is clearly the mind (which Descartes describes as a non-physical substance) whose existence can be treated as certain to ourselves.
  • Descartes believed that because he could think away every aspect of himself except the act of thought itself (e.g. by doubting that the outside world-including his body – is real), that he must be thought (‘I think, therefore I am’). I can imagine myself without a body but I cannot imagine myself as existing without conscious awareness. So a potentially disembodied awareness is the real me.
  • So my mind must be one kind of substance and my body must be another kind of substance, something physical.
  • Treats the body as something controlled by the mind and external to it. Thus, for Descartes, to say ‘I weigh a hundred and fifty pounds’ is much like saying ‘On the way here I had a puncture’ because he sees the body as being outside of himself.
  • Link between mind and body is the pineal gland.
  • Body is machine-like with muscles as pulleys.
  • BUT: a problem for both Descartes (and other dualists like Plato) is to explain how something non-physical like the soul can interact with the body. And in the case of Descartes, there is no evidence that the pineal gland is the link that allows this interaction to happen.
  • AND: Descartes’ argument for substance dualism rests on his claim that he can be certain that he exists because he has thoughts (‘I think therefore I am’). The fact that he can doubt his own existence intuitively confirms the existence of a thinker that is having these doubts. But critics of Descartes have suggested that just because we have a lot of thoughts about ourselves still does not mean that we can be sure that there is a single, unified thinker behind them. In other words, to get from ‘I am thinking’ to ‘Therefore I exist’, Descartes’ argument requires a missing premise: ‘Anything that is thinking exists’. But when this premise is added, Descartes’ argument becomes much less impressive, and this is because we all know of fictional characters that think a lot but don’t exist. Hamlet, for example, in Shakespeare’s play thought a great deal, but it is also clearly true that he did not exist; so it is not true that anything that thinks exists.
  • AND: Calvin Pinchin is a philosopher who has argued that Descartes should have doubted his assumption that the mind has existed indefinitely (as the soul).It is one thing to suggest that we are something non-physical but quite another to insist that we can be sure that the mind or soul will go on forever.
  • AND: a materialist might say that the idea that I am a thinking thing could just be a result of various parts of my brain working together to give me that impression.
  • SEE ALSO THE MAJOR CRITICISM OF DESCARTES OFFERED BY RYLE IMMEDIATELY BELOW.
In Roberto Rossellini’s film Cartesius, there is a brief scene running from just after the 2 hour 20 minute point) which portrays Descartes introducing his argument for substance dualism, along with a nod in the direction of his own version of the ontological argument. English subtitles are available – look for the icon that that looks like a wheel spoke in the bottom right hand side, then select ‘Subtitles’, then choose the ‘Auto-Translate’ option and select ‘English’. NOTE: this may not be possible if attempting to view on an iPhone.

Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976)

  • Ryle is a philosopher who wrote a book called The Concept of Mind in which he attacked the kind of dualism argued for by Descartes.
  • In the book Ryle wrote that dualists are guilty of a category error – treating the soul or mind as a separate object in its own right.
  • To explain what he meant by the phrase ‘category error’ Ryle gave an example of a someone who goes to Oxford and is shown all the colleges, but then asks ‘Where is the University?’; he also describes someone who goes to a cricket match and sees the ground, the pavilion, the players, the scoreboard and so on, yet asks ‘Where is the team spirit?’
  • What Ryle is getting at is that, like the people in the two examples, we are making a mistake (or category error) if we think of what we call the mind as being a separate non-physical thing directing what the body gets up to.. For Ryle, there is no thing in our heads like this. In his book, Ryle calls the mind, ‘the ghost in the machine.’
  • So how did Ryle explain all this mental activity?
  • According to Ryle, mind states can be translated into sentences about ‘ dispositional behaviours’ – the way we behave or the way we are inclined to behave. In other words, we are our behaviours and there is no mind that exists in some kind of Cartesian space over and above this. Thinking and feeling are what our brains and bodies do. Mind should not therefore be thought of as some kind of non-physical substance, but as a kind of activity.
  • BUT: in suggesting that we are just what we do, that we are nothing more than our behaviours, Ryle seems to be denying that we are conscious, aware beings. This feeling that we are a person on the inside is something very basic to all of us and to say that this is some kind of illusion makes us seem more like biological robots or zombies than human beings, and some philosophers feel that Ryle must be wrong because his argument does not do justice to lived human experience.
  • NOTE: Ryle was not a materialist. He disliked ‘-isms’ like ‘dualism’ and ‘materialism’, probably because they could lead people into making category errors. So just as we are not really a soul (as Descartes thought) Ryle did not think that we are just basically a lump of matter either. We are neither a ‘ghost’ or a ‘machine’. Instead, Ryle described the human species as ‘a higher mammal’.

John Hick (1922 – 2012)

  • Adopts a ‘soft materialism’(which means that he is actually not dissimilar to Dawkins as far as his views on mind and body are concerned: we are our bodies but our bodies have a spiritual dimension).
  • Therefore opposes the Platonic view of the soul, not least for assuming that the soul is immortal in itself.
  • For Hick as for Aquinas, ‘my soul is not me’.
  • Mind and body are different but mutually dependent.
  • To be a person involves both.

Richard Dawkins (1941- )

  • Takes a hard materialist view.
  • We are bodies only, genetically driven survival machines.
  • We are merely ‘bytes and bytes of digital information’.
  • Soul Two (intellectual endeavour/scientific method) is killing belief in Soul One (dualism).
  • BUT: there is still the possibility that Soul Two (Science) might confirm the existence of Soul One e.g. through ongoing research into Near Death Experiences (see below)
  • AND: John Hick’s replica theory is compatible with Dawkins’ materialism but still indicates the logical possibility of life after death in a resurrection world (again, see more on this below).
  • David Chalmers thinks that evolution does not explain why we feel conscious. According to him, we could have evolved as zombies, creatures lacking conscious experience.He is therefore more sceptical than Dawkins about Soul Two’s ability to explain consciousness. Dualist Christians may therefore possibly make use of Chalmers to support their belief in the soul (though Chalmers himself is not a dualist or a Christian).
  • There are other materialist/atheistic points of view.
  • For example, Feuerbach famously wrote that ‘Theology is anthropology’. What he meant was that our ideas about God and an afterlife are expressions of what is best in humanity and represent a form of wish fulfilment. They are not about anything that really exists beyond this world. Feuerbach influenced the later philosophies of Marx and Freud.
  • Marx  argued that ‘religion is the opium of the people’. Here the hope of a better afterlife leads people to put up with being exploited by the capitalist system in this one.
  • And in The Future of an Illusion, Freud argued that belief in God involved the projection of desire for a father figure onto the world from the subconscious mind. From this, it could be argued that belief in an afterlife involves a similar form of wish fulfilment.

Life and Death

  • There are various theories about the afterlife.
  • Hard materialists like Dawkins tend to reject any theory of the afterlife.
  • For Dawkins, the only afterlife is the continuation of our genetic material in our children.
  • Dualists often accept some form of afterlife.
  • Plato believes that the eventual life is in the Realm of the Forms.
  • Plato also suggests theory of reincarnation with the transmigration of souls until freed from this world.
  • Some religions adopt a belief in reincarnation (but the nature of this belief differs e.g. atman (Hinduism) v anatta (Buddhism). See below for more on this.
  • Main issue is what we need to be thought of as being the same person in the afterlife
  • This is normally thought of as involving at least one of Continuity of Body or Continuity of Memory or Continuity of Personality.
  • The question is complicated as none of these is fixed even within one life.
  • In Eastern Religions continuity of memory or personality is maintained in both Buddhism and Hinduism e.g. Tibetan Buddhist spiritual teachers or tulkus are claimed to retain some of the personality and memories of their previous incarnation and can even predict where their next incarnation will appear before they die. It was also claimed of the Buddha in the Pali Canon (the sacred text of Theravada Buddhism) that he could remember all of his previous lives. Nevertheless, what we are is in a constant state of flux, change and flow and nothing about us is eternal and unchanging in the way that the atman is in Hinduism.
  • The philosopher Peter Geach is a major critic of dualism and reincarnation (as an example of dualism) in particular. He argues that the experience of continued memories between different bodies would not be sufficient for a claim of identity to be made, for such ‘memories’ could be accounted for in other ways, and memories can be mistaken.
  • Christianity believes in resurrection as a single act.
  • Various Christian Creeds specify resurrection of the body as well as the soul. St Paul taught that we acquire a spiritual body and Jesus appears to be resurrected physically in John’s gospel which he proves by eating a fish.
  • There is therefore a problem: if Aquinas is right we need our bodies to be fully persons in the afterlife.
  • But where would they be? In what state would we be resurrected? As old, sick people or in a throwback to some earlier time? Plus, how could there be continuity with a rotting corpse or ash left behind on earth?
  • John Hick suggests his Replica Theory. God could, at the moment of our deaths, create a replica in a resurrection world. Remember that this can be understood as getting around the problems posed by any kind of disembodied existence whilst also meeting the challenge to belief made by biological materialists like Dawkins who argue that we don’t have a soul. And if Dawkins (and Ryle) are right there is nothing separable to be resurrected. Remember that Hick is a materialist who is trying to demonstrate the logical possibility of God recreating us in a resurrection world.
  • BUT: Bernard Williams and others argue that this would still be a replica, just as a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa would still be a copy.
  • AND: Brian Davies has argued that we ‘want the original’, something that is ‘physically continuous’ with what we knew before. But if we and other people are replicated that continuity is broken.
  • AND: Christianity teaches that we are all unique because we are made in God’s image according to the book of Genesis. But if God makes a replica of us after we die, that uniqueness is lost because replicas are copies.
  • Van Inwagen suggests that at the moment of our deaths, God retrieves our body and substitutes a replica for the corpse. So what moves on to the resurrection world has physical continuity with our earthly body.
  • H.H. Price takes the view of eternity as involving disembodied minds communicating by telepathy. But Hick argues that there is an inconsistency between stating that our mental world after death is created by our desires and that this world is shared. Presumably, our desires would be quite different to those of others and would lead to a different world for each of us.
  • Professor Ian Stevenson is an American psychiatrist who has made detailed studies of children from places such as India, Sri Lanka, the Lebanon, Brazil and Alaska who apparently can remember a previous life. In a typical case, the child starts mentioning, not long after they can talk, events that happened when they were ‘big’. These ‘memories’ generally fade as the child grows up. The previous person is often locatable as having lived some way away, unknown to the child’s family, and to have died not long before the child was born. The child often shows a knowledge of very personal details of the person’s life, has a similar personality, and can even recognise past ‘relatives’ in a crowd, correctly name them, and react to them with strong and appropriate emotion. Sometimes, birthmarks correspond in in location and even appearance to wounds or surgical marks connected with the death of the previous personality. Stevenson is controversial because he has concluded from the cases he has studied that reincarnation is a better explanation for the behaviour of these children than other explanations like fraud or overhearing information about a dead person.
  • However, on the issue of reincarnation Hick suggests a) that personality traits are not specific enough to prove that one person could be the reincarnation of another and b) cases of alleged past-life memories in children (of which there are many cases) could actually be pseudo-memories because they tend to occur more frequently in cultures where belief in reincarnation is already widespread.
  • Rudolph Bultmann argues that afterlife beliefs are mythological (which is what we would expect given his views about religious language)
  • D.Z. Phillips argues that eternal life is not a state involving an afterlife of endless time. Instead, what matters is the type of person one is now, in this life: eternal life consists in being now, and in this world, a person filled with the love of God.

John Hick, the Irenaean theodicy and morality

 NOTE: the Irenaean theodicy will be briefly recapped here as Hick builds on it.

  • St Irenaeus (c. 130-c.200 AD) – devised what is known as a ‘soul-making’ theodicy, one that was further developed by John Hick (1922- 2012)
  • Irenaeus focuses on one particular verse from Genesis Chapter 1, namely verse 26, in which it is stated ‘Then God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’
  • For Irenaeus, this means that as we are made in the ‘image’ of God, we have the potential for moral and spiritual growth. Our task in this world is therefore to grow into the ‘likeness’ of God through overcoming the challenges that are sent our way.
  • Irenaeus therefore treats Adam and Eve, not as fully accountable human beings who introduced original sin into the world, but more as morally and spiritually immature creatures who stupidly disobeyed a simple rule.
  • He believes this is therefore a good world for soul-making.
  • Unlike Augustine, for whom evil is a punishment, the Irenaean theodicy sees all evil as having a purpose. It is meant to challenge us to make the right choices that assist our moral and spiritual growth. The world is like a classroom, one in which we are able to learn from the errors we make.
  • In other words, in the Irenaean theodicy, the source of evil is God himself. This is very different from Augustine who in no way wishes to associate the existence of evil with God. For Augustine, human beings bring evil entirely on themselves because of their misuse of free-will.
  • Like Augustine, Irenaeus also embraces the notion of free-will but sees it as having an important purpose.
  • Through our free choices, we will hopefully develop virtues of character such as courage, charity, patience etc. We will learn to be better people.
  • It is also important for Irenaeus that we overcome our tendency to behave like animals, as creatures of impulse and instinct. Instead, we should try to grow into the likeness of God by cultivating spiritual qualities like the ones just mentioned, and also compassion, love and gentleness.
  • Hick adds something called epistemic distance into the mix – God must leave us a space to be ourselves and to be genuinely free to choose him. If God’s existence was obvious this would not be possible. So instead, God creates a world in which his existence is not self-evident.
  • This epistemic distance continues to be closed in the afterlife where soul-making continues.
  •  Hick therefore believes that suffering is part of a process of soul-making that everyone has to go through. However, Hick also argues that everyone will complete that process eventually and no-one will suffer eternally (as Augustine claims). All will eventually achieve a state of reconciliation with God. This is because he thinks that a truly omnibenevolent (all-loving) God would not condemn anyone to Hell forever. So for Hick, Hell is only a place of temporary punishment.
  • So everyone eventually becomes spiritually perfected in the afterlife. This idea is called universalism.
  • So Hick builds on the theodicy of Irenaeus by adding to it, the notions of epistemic distance and universalism. He also regards evolution as the means by which God produces beings that are capable of being responsive to him. In doing so, Hick therefore acknowledges that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is a myth (for Irenaeus, as with Augustine, this story would have been regarded as literally true).
  • BUT: while it may not be unreasonable for someone to believe that there is a God who keeps himself at an epistemic distance from us, it is surely also not unreasonable to believe that the reason why God’s existence is not immediately apparent to us is because He actually does not exist.
  • Hick’s appeal to universalism would not sit well with traditionally minded Christians who a) believe in Hell and b) believe that for free-will to be meaningful it must be truly possible for us to damn ourselves for all eternity through the choices we make.
  • They might further believe that the very worst people do not deserve to soul-make but instead should be subjected to some kind of eternal punishment.
  • It still seems difficult to justify the suffering of animals (an example of natural evil) as the backdrop to soul-making in both Irenaeus’s original theodicy and Hick’s modification of it. Hick himself has commented that animals have a ‘happy blindness’ to the inevitability of death and, because they live ‘from instant to instant’, are not able to remember their potentially traumatising experiences of suffering. However more recent research into animal awareness suggests that some species do remember their experiences and the suffering that results from them. For example, some chimpanzees and gorillas who have been taught ASL (American Sign Language) have signed their awareness of death and personal feelings of mourning.
  • And why did God permit all the animal suffering that went on in the millions of years before homo sapiens evolved? Was this prelude to the process of human soul-making really necessary?
  • Similarly, the suffering of innocent children does not seem justifiable as part of the process of soul-making (though it makes sense of why some children die young – most of their soul-making can then still take place in the afterlife).
  • More recently, Stephen Law has argued that the notion that this world is the creation of an evil God who deliberately subjects us to a process of character destruction over the course of our lives is every bit as plausible as the conception of creation found in the Irenaean theodicy. Such a God might, for example, allow us to have children to love so as to cause us to worry agonizingly about them. He also provides us with healthy young bodies so that we can slowly be deprived of that health and vitality over the course of our lives. By giving us something wonderful for a while, and then gradually taking it away, an evil god can make us suffer even more than if we had never had it in the first place. Law’s point is to undermine the reasonableness of the Irenaean theodicy.
  • An evidentialist might go even further than this and argue that the staggering amounts of evil the world contains, much of which seems unnecessary or implausible, is evidence against the existence of the kind of God that Hick’s version of the Irenaean theodicy seeks to defend.
  • As has already been noted, James Rachels takes this view: ‘The need to develop moral character might explain why there must be some evil in the world, but there is far more evil than is necessary for such a purpose: there is stunning, overpowering evil that crushes the life out of people. If we already have AIDS, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida, do we need Ebola as well? If the people of Guatemala are poor and hungry, do they need an earthquake on top of it?’…’The amount of evil in the world could be reduced by two-thirds and there would still be more than we could handle.’
  • Lastly, Mackie (see above) has argued that if it is logically possible for us to freely choose to do good on one occasion then an omnipotent God could have created us with the ability to freely choose to do good on every occasion. This undermines the whole basis of the free-will defence in both the Augustinian and Irenaean theodicies.

Hinduism, Buddhism and Morality

  • Alternatives to traditional Christian thinking about the afterlife  are provided by Hinduism and Buddhism
  • For Hindus, we suffer because of the evil actions that we performed in a previous life, according to the law of karma.
  • We can free ourselves from the cycle of rebirth and suffering through good deeds and meditation, eventually achieving a state of moksha (release) in which we finally realize that our soul or atman is identical with Brahman (the One Reality which we are all part of and which gives rise to the universe).
  • So as we are all really part of Brahman and Brahman is eternal, death and suffering/evil are an illusion (maya).
  • For Buddhists, there is no problem of evil, only a problem of suffering or dukkha. This is because Buddhists do not believe that there is one, Creator God. They are not monotheists.
  • Although the Buddhist scriptures mention gods, there are many of them and they die and get reborn too.
  • Like Hindus, Buddhists also believe in karma and rebirth and that liberation is possible through good actions and meditation.
  • However, Buddhists believe that it is what we intend rather than what we do that has good and bad karmic effects.
  • And Buddhists do not believe that they become one with Brahman. Instead, doing a lot of meditation helps to free people from suffering and leads on to the attainment of a state called Nirvana.
  • Buddhists also do not believe that we have a soul. Instead, just as the world around us changes, we are constantly changing too. But this process of continual change has no beginning and no end. In other words, Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent, including us. This is the teaching of anatta (no-self).
  • Natural evil is therefore just a feature of the universe.
  • The traditional theodicies of Augustine and Irenaeus take no account of animal suffering. But in both Hinduism and Buddhism animal rebirths are thought to result from previous karma.
  • Also, inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals matters for both Hindus and Buddhists and can produce bad karma.
  • Here though, an issue might be how animals might be said to be karmically accountable for their actions when their behaviour is mainly instinctive.
  • And the Buddhist emphasis on intention is questionable because we cannot know people’s true intentions as they are hidden from us.
  • Using, Ockham’s razor we could explain life’s unfairness as being due to chance or coincidence as this is a simpler explanation that does not involve concepts like reincarnation and the survival of the atman in Hinduism.
  • Hick’s arguments against the possibility of reincarnation and the possibility of establishing identity between lifetimes (see above) are relevant here.
  • Another criticism of reincarnation is that the explanation for life’s unfairness is always put off. If we ask ourselves why we are suffering now, a Hindu or Buddhist might say that this could be because of something bad we did in a previous life. But when we go back to that previous life we are then left with explaining suffering there in terms of other previous lives. A problem with this is that we never get back to a life from which evil originates. And even if we could get back to that first existence, the starting point of all our reincarnations, then we would still be left with the problem of explaining why suffering in our very first life is justified because there is no previous karma to affect us.

Heaven and Hell

  • Perhaps one of the main issues here is whether the different views of heaven and hell are compatible with the God of classical theism e.g. is the idea of eternal punishment in a literal Hell compatible with the classical idea that God is all-loving?
  • The problem of evil is relevant here e.g. in terms of whether the suffering many have to endure for the reward of eternal life is justified.
  • For many Christians, Catholic notions of Purgatory are unbiblical. But Hick has adopted a similar view (see above)
  • For Aquinas, hell is a separation from God – it is not seen in fiery furnace terms
  • Modern Catholic theology tends to use the idea of Hell as a voluntary rejection of God
  • Heaven creates some problems too e.g. Bernard Williams has argued that an immortal life would be a meaningless one because we would all eventually become bored by the endless repetition of the same experiences.

Near Death Experiences

The following information may be useful when it comes to writing  essays on religious experience, mind and body/life after death, religious language or miracles (because NDE’s could be seen as miraculous). However, this will only be possible if the question addresses this territory. For example, it may not be relevant to an essay on corporate religious experiences. However, if the question is about the veridicality* of religious experiences it would certainly be worth a mention. Similarly, Dr Parnia’s AWARE studies would also be worth a mention in a question to do with Ayer and verification.

  1. A Near Death Experience (NDE) is a widely reported phenomenon that usually – but not always – happens when people experience cardiac arrest.
  2. In the first stage of an NDE, the experiencer typically finds themselves floating above their body. The most intriguing cases involve patients in hospital who have allegedly been able to accurately report conversations between the medical team trying to save them and have observed the procedures carried out. These cases are of interest because brain activity ceases very quickly after cardiac arrest which means that this type of experience should not be possible.
  3. Those who experience an NDE claim to be able to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ more acutely than they do under normal circumstances.
  4. This raises the possibility that our consciousness may be capable of existing outside the body. However, it might be inaccurate to describe this state as ‘disembodied’ because the person can still ‘see’ and ‘hear’ and we usually require some kind of body in order for that to happen.
  5. Dr Sam Parnia has co-ordinated studies of NDE’s involving various hospitals around the world.
  6. These studies involved pictures being placed in operating theatres in a prominent position where they would be visible from the ceiling but not from ground level. None of the medical staff know what is shown in these pictures.
  7. Parnia’s intention was to find out whether patients reporting an NDE can accurately describe the pictures.
  8. If patients are unable to identify the images this would suggest that NDE’s are possibly just hallucinations in a dying brain. On the other hand, if these patients do correctly remember what the pictures showed this could provide the first evidence for dualism being the correct way to view the relationship between mind and body AND also for life after death.
  9. The results of the studies were, apparently, inconclusive as far as the ‘target’ exercise were concerned but suggested that some awareness might be retained beyond the point at which someone would be categorized as clinically dead. The findings were recently summarised as follows in a recent online article published by NYU Langone (Parnia’s employers):  ‘The groundbreaking AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) I and AWARE II studies from the Parnia Lab closely examined the experiences of hundreds of patients with cardiac arrest who had biologically crossed over the threshold of death before being resuscitated. Among the many intriguing findings, many survivors reported lucid and well-structured thought processes. They described seeing deceased relatives and reviewing their actions and intentions toward others throughout their lives, and afterward, many recalled details of their resuscitation.’

As far as your essays are concerned, you cannot spend too much time describing Parnia’s study. But you could mention it in your conclusion to point out that future, replicatory research might eventually prove or disprove that at least one type of religious experience is veridical, and therefore that religious statements about NDE’s may be provisionally regarded as potentially meaningful and cognitive because they might be verifiable after all (so that we do not have to wait for eschatological verification in the sense described by Hick). Depending on the findings of such studies, we might learn that Soul One is, indeed, killing Soul Two or vice versa, or that Descartes substance dualism or St Paul’s ‘spiritual body’ are reasonable descriptions of the relationship between mind and body (if the findings are positive). For an update on ongoing studies that relate to this territory, see this BLOG.

What is not in doubt is that NDE’s profoundly transform those who experience them. Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson has found that people commonly lose their fear of death and become less materialistic. They also learn to appreciate this life more. In other words, the effects of NDE’s usually tend to be positive and long lasting.

  • Veridical – an experience is veridical only if the experience is actually the experience of something that exists independent of and external to the experiencer.

Possible Examination Questions

Clarify the meaning of the key terms for this topic.

Explore the different views regarding the possibility and nature of life after death

Clarify ideas regarding the relationship between mind and body.Analyse and evaluate ideas regarding life after death related to evidence, near death exp