What can or can’t neuroscience tell us about life after death? This question is becoming more pertinent as our technology allows us to uncover more about the workings of the brain. But why does this question even arise in the first place? It arises because many people have historically believed, and many still believe, that one will have a personal existence after one’s death. Other people don’t believe this is true. And the debate as to whether we do survive our deaths dates at least as far back as the debates between the Sadducees and Pharisees in first-century Judaea.
So, the debate about life after death precedes neuroscience. In this case, when considering what neuroscience can bring to the debate, a relevant question is:
What are the grounds for believing in life after death in the first place? I think the most solid grounds for thinking we do survive death come out of a certain way of living—one oriented by Biblical scripture and by being a part of a community that is shaped by faith in God—wherein one experiences what one firmly believes to be the work of a merciful loving God who:
(i) is the creator of the universe,
(ii) has definitively manifested Himself, and His promises to us, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
As a result of this way of living, many have experienced (and manifest) growth and development such that they come to live fuller, more flourishing lives. And this fact provides evidence of the work of a Creator who wants to have a personal loving relationship with us—even beyond biological death. And, given this, if God can create the universe, then He can figure out a way for people to survive death. So to sum it up: evidence for the existence of a Creator who personally loves people and will take care of them—namely, through His work through Christ and in His creatures’ lives—is good grounds for thinking there is life after death.
But couldn’t it still be the case that neuroscience provides evidence that rules out the possibility of life after death? Some think that, by showing that all mental occurrences (e.g., thoughts, sensations, perceptions) are dependent on brain occurrences, neuroscience provides good reasons for thinking that we are completely made up of physical elements. In this case, there is no immaterial entity—no “Cartesian soul”—that makes up that part of human beings with mental abilities. And evidence that we are not partly made up by an immaterial entity might be thought to provide evidence that undermines the idea that people survive death. The reason is: the idea that we survive biological death might be thought to depend upon the idea that we are partly made up by an immaterial entity.
Something close to what I have outlined above is I think the most plausible argument against life after death that can be provided on the basis of neuroscientific findings. There are, however, at least two issues with the suggestion that the dependency of mental occurrences upon brain occurrences provides evidence against the belief in life after death.
The first is that this dependency relationship does not rule out the idea that we could be at least partly be made up of something immaterial. We can imagine all kinds of entities that form very tight dependency relationships but nevertheless have some existence unto themselves. We even have a term for this interaction: symbiosis. I think it is the case that a story can be told about an immaterial entity (like a soul) that:
(a) possesses certain characteristics
(b) is naturally, though not exclusively, in some sort of “symbiotic-like” relationship with our physical bodies,
which is consistent with what we can learn about the dependency relationship between neural occurrences and brain occurrences through neuroscience. That said, why think something like a soul exists if we can also tell a story that perfectly and fully explains the kinds of lives we lead and all the abilities we have without appealing to the existence of an immaterial entity?
This question, however, leads us toward an even deeper question: Can we actually tell a plausible story about the kinds of lives we lead, and about all mental occurrences and abilities, without appealing to an immaterial entity, like a soul or mind? This question continues to be a matter of debate, and is a question that involves some difficult philosophical issues. But however one lands on this question, my point is this: whether we are at least partly made up of an immaterial entity is, in the end, a question that requires considerations outside the scope of neuroscience. Having said that, let me make one final point before moving on. If a plausible story of what neuroscience reveals can be told with or without reference to an immaterial entity, and it is somehow established that we can only have a personal existence after our deaths if we are partly made up of an immaterial entity, the believer’s initial grounds for believing that God will restore us after death simply becomes grounds for thinking we have an immaterial soul.
So that is the first issue. For the second issue, putting aside the observations just made, let’s speculate that neuroscience can somehow provide evidence that we are not, even in part, made up of an immaterial soul. Even still, this would not be evidence against life after death. There is a tradition that finds its roots in statements found in the New Testament, and points back to the bodily resurrection of Christ, that maintains that personal existence after death is tied to a new bodily existence as part of a new creation—a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). According to this tradition, individuals would have a personal existence after death even if they were purely physical beings. But, then, this question emerges: Is it conceivable that an individual, without a continuous immaterial soul, can be the same individual with a different body as part of a new creation? And, here, we have landed on a philosophical question, and thus, once again, on an issue involving considerations outside the scope of neuroscience. I should, further, mention that several philosophers have recently provided good reason to think it is conceivable (cf. Zimmerman 1999; O’Connor & Jacobs 2010).
The point I wish to make is this: good evidence for life after death comes out of a certain way of living, and neuroscience cannot, in and of itself, provide evidence that undermines this initial evidence. Rather, belief in life after death involves theological and philosophical considerations outside the purview of neuroscience, and is grounded in reasons for believing in a personal, loving God who creates and sustains the universe—reasons that come out of a certain way of life. Thus, neuroscience may help us delimit the means by which a person might survive death. However, it will never be able to undermine the initial grounds—rooted in a way of life and a set of life experiences—for believing in life after biological death.