Virtually every culture, in every place and time throughout recorded history, has had some kind of a belief in an afterlife. In my opening blog entry on ‘Religion’ I listed the disciplines that can be taken to understand this phenomenon -- historical, theological, cultural, mythological, logical, and psychological.
The logical approach would be an approach seeking evidence. Evidence, however, is relevant only to what is within the creation. At the most fundamental level, it is the analysis of the constituents of relativity – mater, energy, space and time. Therefore the logical approach could only envision life after death in physical terms. It envisions life after death as it envisions life before death – as involving relationships and places. It is flatly based on the materialistic based view of reality. But, as we now know, matter is only a transitory part of the creation and is not some absolute baseline. Logic is too limited.
The historical approach would be to search the past for some event providing evidence that there is life after death. But, as suggested in the logical approach, evidence is a self imposed limitation of the intellect and confined to the ever changing creation and therefore can not be any basis for eternity.
I will dismiss theological and mythological quickly as belief or, to put it more bluntly – as a wish and their cultural variations. Why a wish? Theological and mythological understandings are wishes because, clearly, if heaven was a fully accepted reality, everyone would want to be leaving to go there right away. Why put up with the difficulties of life when the perfect vacation spa is available here and now?
The psychological approach, I believe, offers the most insight. This is because virtually every culture has believed that there is some form of life after death and it does so without evidence. No God or gods have come with a message to the masses in such a way as to make it clear to all that there is a life after death. None have come to address Congress or reach us through television. Such ‘appearances’ that have occurred have only been to individuals which has left us with only the equivalent of hearsay evidence. So we must probe the human mind if we are to understand why the belief in an afterlife is universal.
In the psychological approach, we need not go into all of the depths of psychology. What is relevant to this inquiry is how we understand ourselves. The concept of self occurs only in the higher life forms. In humans, it commences in late infancy. This conclusion has been reached by watching babies and higher primates observing themselves in a mirror and noting their measured reaction. The lower life forms, on the other hand, react as if what they saw in the mirror was another of their species and fights with the mirror often ensue. For them, the conclusion is that they have no sense of self.
It is an observation of the developing intellect that I am separate from what surrounds me -- an obvious empirical conclusion. This conclusion, in turn, parlays into the concept of the existence of self. This apparent reality, being accepted so early in life that it even precedes the logic that comes with the development of language, is a reality that is never challenged later in life. It is solidly accepted.
But then, not much later, sometime in childhood, the individual is acquainted with another reality – that of death. It, of course, is someone else’s death but it brings up the unpleasantness regarding personal death. It is clear that such will happen.
So now we have two realities – the existence of self and the non-existence of self because of death -- two opposing realities neither of which we are willing to disbelieve. When such a conundrum occurs, psychologists tell us that we rationalize ourselves out of the enigma. We create new realities. In this case, the rationalization is that the self survives physical death. How does this happen? For the answer, we have invented mythology and theology.
So what we must resolve is which of the two realities is valid – self or death. This I will address in my next blog entry.