Spiritual Thoughts on Death
Benjamin Cain has written an article on death recently, and this is my response.
He makes various assertions which are presented as facts, even though they are merely his beliefs:
- that death is the end of our being
- that our subjective life is an illusion
- that matter is the primary reality of the universe.
He makes statements which are clearly not true:
- “Death is palpable proof of our finitude”. Not so; death is merely proof of the finitude of our bodies, not of our consciousness.
- “Death demonstrates that we’re ultimately just things”. How does it do that? For that to be true, Cain would have to prove that consciousness does not survive death, and is dependent on the brain. These have never been demonstrated, merely assumed, even though he states them as facts.
- “The universe consists mostly of mere things”. The content here might be true, but again is unproven, and is therefore not the fact he claims. An alternative, and diametrically opposed, philosophical viewpoint (usually called idealism), is that the universe is nothing but consciousness in its different manifestations.
Cain is writing as an archetypal scientific materialist. Arguments have been going on between materialists and idealists for centuries. Cain here seems to be claiming that materialism has won the argument, which is not the case. He is simply proclaiming his faith, which he is entitled to do, although I find this a little strange from a philosopher; I thought that philosophers usually make arguments for a point of view. Since the questions we are discussing fall outside the scope of the scientific method, I hope he won’t mind me also sometimes proclaiming my faith.
There is no evidence or proof that death is the end — it is hard to see how there could be. This is merely an assumption. There is actually more evidence for the opposite position, that death is not the end. The best evidence is memories of past lives. Ian Stevenson’s work is well known, e.g Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, where he investigated the subject as scientifically as possible. (I’ve discussed it in this article.)
Cain says that:
- “we identify not so much with our bodies but with our subjectivity”. He believes this is folly, and a false attitude. But we are correct to do so; our experience of our identity is not an illusion (at least not in the sense that Cain intends).
- “we imagine… our true selves (are) immaterial and immortal. At our core, we assume, we’re spirits that will never perish”. That is a very profound intuition, because at our core we are spirits that will never perish.
- “our humanitarian conceits, religious dogmas, and personal plans are nullified by our underlying physicality”. On the contrary, everything in life gains significance because, as Sting sings, “we are spirits in the material world”, and we have work to do.
- “our subjective life as persons must be an illusion, a mass hallucination, a giant fraud”. We are “likely misled here by the strangeness of consciousness… (It’s the brain’s) alienated neural signals… that mistake their sum for a transcendent non-thing”. Why must our subjective life be an illusion? Certainly not because materialist ‘scientists’ think so. Our experience tells us otherwise. It’s actually the materialists who are misled, because they have been persuaded by the conclusions of ‘Enlightenment’ science. (The word enlightenment in this context is something of a sick joke.)
Beliefs along these lines have led some philosophers to make statements which make one fear for their mental health, for example Paul and Patricia Churchland who believe that “science has shown that mental phenomena simply do not exist”¹. I have no problem with Cain, or anyone else, holding these opinions, although I would prefer it if philosophers did not dogmatically present their faith as facts. It is hardly surprising, however, that the general public on the whole do not take these claims seriously, thank goodness. And it’s interesting that, from a spiritual perspective, all the things he considers to be facts are not true, and what he considers illusions are the truth.
Of course, conversations like these are unlikely to persuade either side to change their position. For me therefore, the more interesting question is, why are so many people in modern times so keen to accept unquestioningly the unproven (and bizarre) assumptions of atheistic scientific materialism? Perhaps they have been brought up to accept ‘science’ unquestioningly, but there are other, potentially deeper, reasons. My assumption is that it has something to do with their psychological predisposition. What is the unconscious motivation?
Cain says that “in our last moments we may regret wrong turns we made”. It’s hard to see, given his nihilistic worldview, what he could mean by the term ‘wrong turn’. A wrong turn implies choice and free will, which materialist neuroscience denies; they are more illusions. And in his worldview there is no meaningful agent capable of choosing, since our sense of identity is apparently an illusion. In any case, what could possibly constitute a right turn, given that our “personal plans are nullified by our underlying physicality”? Given his worldview, I would have assumed that the term ‘wrong turn’ is for him completely meaningless.
If we take him at face value, however, then it is actually after death that such regret may arise. People who have had a near-death experience — who have temporarily ‘died’ but then been resuscitated — report that their whole life suddenly flashed past incredibly fast. This would seem to be a preparation for a review or assessment of their life, having died and left the body. This is exactly what various spiritual traditions believe happens, and would seem to fit in with a belief-system which includes reincarnation and karma.
That is my suggestion for why atheistic materialism is so prevalent nowadays; there are a lot of people out there who have accumulated a lot of bad karma from earlier incarnations, and don’t want to have to face up to the consequences (we reap what we sow). They therefore enter a state of denial, which might be called existential guilt. The underlying psychological processes, however, remain unconscious.
None of these debates, of course, can be settled from within the scientific method, which is why, like Cain, I don’t feel the need here to justify or prove what I’ve said. So, to conclude, in his words, “death reduces our myths and fictions to laughingstocks”. In reality, the survival of death exposes the fictions of materialists and afterlife-deniers, something they will presumably understand fairly soon after their death. What will it feel like to suddenly realise that one’s whole life has been wasted, believing in illusions?
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. In Matter and Consciousness. My quote is from Philip Goff, How Galileo Created the Problem of Consciousness, Rider, 2019, p9