Why I Don’t Believe in Life After Death

Patheos asks What do I Really Believe?, and uses it as a round-up for various posts on certain topics. One topic is the afterlife: What Really Happens When We Die?

Tough for an atheist to answer this question in any depth. I usually default to my wife’s answer, “we rejoin the nitrogen cycle.” But it seems like something more is called for, so let me lay out why I’m not moved by most of the discussions of life after death.

Alright, a couple of points.

First, if we’re going to talk about life after death, I’m only interested if it means I get to experience it. I’m not trying to be selfish, I’m just trying to make the point that if something that is not me survives, like some mindless “spark of life” or shard of the infinite that loses all individuality, then I don’t care because that’s not really me that is surviving.

What does have to survive? Let’s be clear that I am the whole of my being: my thoughts, my memories, my personality and so one. I see those things as interwoven, so I don’t believe that I could drink from the river of Lethe and really still be me. My experiences, retained in my memories, shape my personality and make up who I am.

Second, some background: many members of my family suffer from mental illnesses. I’ve become very familiar with the effects of lithium and other such substances. I know that a sprinkle of this chemical and a pill of that chemical can completely alter someone’s personality. I’ve learned that we are material, and that who we are is chemistry.

I’m open to the idea that the material is not all there is. But whatever your theory for the spiritual aspects of humanity, it has to explain my relatives and their experiences. Further, it has to explain all the evidence we have that the physical brain gives rise to our minds. Under the euphemistic heading of “natural experiments,” there are hundreds of cases where accidental damage to the brain has altered a person’s perceptions, memories, personality, emotions – the whole self.

Finally, the verdict: I do not see how the being that I am could survive the shutdown of the system that my personality arises from. I cannot fathom how there could be a life after death that would be consoling or meaningful. I’m open to suggestions, but I don’t understand how we can get beyond the above points.

  • Lurker111

    My favorite answer is, “We join Polonius at dinner.”

  • Greg G.

    I also think there has to be some continuity of the self. If a duplicate of myself could be made with all my memories and tendencies, my old self would see the duplicate as a different person even if the duplicate considered itself to be the real me. Stopping one identity when the other begins doesn’t solve the problem.

    The Christian idea that we die and get resurrected with a spiritual body doesn’t work either. If someone else, a duplicate, who thinks they are me gets punished for what I enjoyed, it’s a lousy system.

    Some speculate that the soul operates the body. That idea would satisfy my objection of the continuity of self. However, we have some ideas of how memory systems work and how to disable them without stopping conscious awareness. Why would we require sleep if a spiritual entity ran us? These problems show that hypothesis to be untenable.

    • Avi Chapman

      I think the continuity of self objection you mentioned is not such a problem. Every atom of our being changes (I heard once every seven years, but even if that number is incorrect, some number is correct). The ‘me’ seven years ago is of a different physical substance than the ‘me’ today. Yet, if I’ve lived a boring life during that time, friends would recognize either ‘me’ as ‘me’. If you get exactly duplicated, they’re both ‘you’. But over time, your experiences will diverge sufficiently that you become individuals.

      The only reason this seems weird is because it doesn’t happen in every day life – like the way people think in terms of discrete ‘species’, when in fact the only thing that divides species from each other is the fact that their intermediate forms are no longer around to be seen.

      However, there is a good real-world analogy to the situation of being duplicated and having your original killed. What if I get hit on the head after writing this comment and lose my memory of everything I did in the last 24 hours? I might wonder if this comment was written by ‘me’ or by some spooky doppelgänger who only thinks he’s ‘me’. But in fact, both states are ‘me’.

      We are defined by information, not substance. Like all information, you can make two copies and no new information will be created unless you start to modify the separate copies individually.

      • Greg G.

        Hi Avi,

        I think the continuity of self objection you mentioned is not such a problem. Every atom of our being changes (I heard once every seven years, but even if that number is incorrect, some number is correct). The ‘me’ seven years ago is of a different physical substance than the ‘me’ today.

        I have heard seven years, also. I think this makes continuity even more important. Remember “My father changed the axe head three times and the handle seven times but it’s still my grandfather’s axe.” A baby is composed of material that was once part of its mother but they are different people. The main thing is continuity.

        Yet, if I’ve lived a boring life during that time, friends would recognize either ‘me’ as ‘me’. If you get exactly duplicated, they’re both ‘you’. But over time, your experiences will diverge sufficiently that you become individuals.

        The only reason this seems weird is because it doesn’t happen in every day life – like the way people think in terms of discrete ‘species’, when in fact the only thing that divides species from each other is the fact that their intermediate forms are no longer around to be seen.

        It does happen in everyday life whenever monozygotic twins are produced. A fertilized egg divides into cells. If the cells all stay together, one of the first eight becomes a baby and the rest become afterbirth (eventually, it’s the placenta at that point). If they separate, two babies are produced. They have the same DNA and the same history. They become different entities when they take separate paths, not with further change.

        However, there is a good real-world analogy to the situation of being duplicated and having your original killed. What if I get hit on the head after writing this comment and lose my memory of everything I did in the last 24 hours? I might wonder if this comment was written by ‘me’ or by some spooky doppelgänger who only thinks he’s ‘me’. But in fact, both states are ‘me’.

        The duplicate of me is someone else. If I die, the world might not know that I have been replaced by the duplicate and the duplicate might not realize it is a duplicate, but I am still dead and the duplicate is someone else. There are drugs that block the chemistry of long-term memory. Just because I’m not forming memory doesn’t mean it isn’t me. I could be unconscious but it’s still me.

        We are defined by information, not substance. Like all information, you can make two copies and no new information will be created unless you start to modify the separate copies individually.

        But the two copies are different copies. Duplicating the information creates a different history. One is the person I have always been. The other is someone who thinks he is me. The other might feel the same way. If the other dies, I continue to live. If I die, I’m dead and the other guy lives.

        • Avi Chapman

          I think the argument comes full circle here. I was thinking about when you said:

          “If I die, the world might not know that I have been replaced by the
          duplicate and the duplicate might not realize it is a duplicate, but I
          am still dead and the duplicate is someone else.”

          I was thinking that ‘a difference that makes no difference is no difference’. But then I realised that it only made no difference if there was no afterlife and there was no way for your original copy to know that he was dead – then the copy would think he’s the original, the world would think he was the original and the original wouldn’t be aware of the change since it didn’t exist anymore.

          I think if we stipulate that, then what I’m saying is true. But if we allow for an afterlife, then there *would* be someone who is greatly affected by the duplication and killing of the original – the original.

          • Greg G.

            The death of the original is the death of the original. Whether there is a duplicate is irrelevant to the original. The duplicate would live its own life and not the original’s. The old memories might be valued but they would be false, implanted, vicarious memories. Is that what you are getting at?

            • Avi Chapman

              More what I’m getting at is that a difference that has no effect – such as replacing the blade and the handle of an axe, is no real difference. The axe is still the axe because the change has had no meaningful effect. Discussing whether it’s the same axe becomes a case of splitting philosophical hairs.

              Switching an original human for a duplicate would only have a meaningful effect if anybody noticed the switch. If the original went on to an afterlife, he would notice that he is dead – a meaningful effect. If there is no afterlife (or only the duplicate is entitled to go on to an afterlife), the switch has had no effect and it is not meaningful to worry about the difference.

            • Greg G.

              Having one’s awareness stopped is an extremely meaningful event, even if the event is hidden from all involved. It means the world to that individual. It’s a life-changing event.

            • Avi Chapman

              Having one’s awareness stopped would only be meaningful if you were aware of it happening. That’s why so many atheists are less scared of death than so many theists. Atheists may fear pain and anguish in the lead-up to death, but the moment of death itself means nothing.

            • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003194979553 Leiningen’s Ants

              Folgers Crystals, replace, see if anyone notices? ;D

  • Mick

    What really happens when we die?

    Don’t just talk about it – produce your evidence.

    • Michael Mock

      Most of what I know about it comes from this writer’s guide. But that’s probably not the sort of answer they were looking for.

  • John Evans

    The question of life after death comes up at least once a week on a Facebook atheist group I frequent. Reliably, someone will bring up the law of conservation of energy, as if energy were somehow synonymous with information.

    • Michael

      There is conservation of information too (though it is a bit confusing in the case of black holes). When you die, the information about your whole life is still contained in the universe, but it would be impossible to find, as it would be scattered throughout the solar system and beyond and mixed with everything else that happened as well.

      In principle, given the current positions, momenta, and other properties of all classical particles in the universe (avoiding the complexity of QM for the moment), we could simply apply Newton’s, Maxwell’s, and Einstein’s laws to determine their position, momenta, and other properties far in the past. In Quantum Mechanics information is even harder to access, but it is still conserved. This is of fundamental importance.

      But saying that “information is conserved, therefore people can’t die” is like saying that “energy is conserved, therefore coal can’t burn.” It does burn, and the chemical energy is carried away in the heat and light, along with a lot of information.

      • John Evans

        I concede the point. :)

      • kessy_athena

        Not to open the whole QM can of worms again, but what in the world makes you and others in the physics community think that information is conserved?

        • Michael

          It follows from determinism. Actually, it pretty much is determinism.

          In QM, information is conserved at all times except possibly during collapse. That’s more or less the definition of a unitary transformation (i.e. isomorphism). In classical mechanics, it is simply conserved at all times.

          • kessy_athena

            I think you’re aware of my opinion of determinism…

            However, that’s not what I asked you. Conservation of energy or momentum can be demonstrated experimentally. There’s no particular reason that those things should be conserved and not others (say, velocity). It’s something that’s determined by empirical observation. So what about information?

            I’ve heard some people say that if information were not conserved, it would have drastic consequences for everyday experience. I’ve always been a bit puzzled about that. As far as I can tell, if information were not conserved, that would simply mean that the universe doesn’t have a uniquely determined past or future. Which strikes me as just being the world we live in. Am I missing something?

            • DMG

              Conservation in physics is intimately tied to symmetries in the underlying laws.

              Translational symmetry gives rise to conservation of momentum. Rotational symmetry gives rise to conservation of angular momentum, etc.

              We can observe symmetries in the universe’s laws, and infer the conserved properties which must follow as a consequence.

              This isn’t an assumption – you can work out the trajectories of a collection of particles from first principles and find that there is no bit in the input which fails to influence the predicted outcome. Testing those predictions in experiments confirms them, to within experimental error.

              That’s not to say that more precise experiments couldn’t one day show conclusively that information is not conserved, but so far they haven’t. In our current state of knowledge, even tough problems like the Black Hole Information Paradox appear to have information-conserving solutions.

              Destroying information is actually a pretty tough thing to do, but diffusing it is easy – that’s why it’s not practically possible to reconstruct a physically-perfect history of everything, even though the information is in some sense “there”

  • Makoto

    What happens when I die? Well, I sure hope that whatever parts of me can be used to help others live are used, whatever is left is used to train doctors so they can operate on others so they can live, or my parts are used to figure out what went wrong so others can live.

    As for me? I’m practically immortal at that point, giving life to others I don’t even know.

  • mikespeir

    Right now I’m immortal. Come back in 20 years and we’ll reevaluate.

  • RickRayFSM

    It’s MAGIC ! I wouldn’t want to come back as me unless I was vastly improved. Gawd works in mysterious ways they say. Oh heck, I’m making fun of xians and muslims again. Slap, slap, slap !

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003194979553 Leiningen’s Ants

    Organ donor; though, I don’t think they’d want them after I’ve been through with ‘em~ heh

    Dad went for cremation and spreading, as did mom’s pa, and mom wants that too. I’m constantly concerned someone is going to have to deal with a body when I’m gone. In the meantime, I’ll live, but there’s gotta be some mass unmarked pit of a grave my friends can casually shove what was me into between reminisces. Maybe with a sequoia growing on top of it. It’s that whole “use every part of the buffalo” philosophy. I guess.

  • InjunTrouble77

    In a way you are right. The personality of this life does die (although not immediately after physical death). However, the soul is immortal and lives on after death to be reborn as another person (male or female). You want to see http://www.sentforlife.com/death.html for more info

  • InjunTrouble77

    You may want to visit http://www.sentforlife.com/death.html and find out if it answers all your questions.


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