after death: Is it logically possible?
Graeme J. Davidson,
3 October 2005
cannot claim 2+2=5 and get away with it any more than
God can announce that you will survive your physical
death if that is logically impossible.
It is often hard to accept that a person you have been very
close to and loved so much is gone from you forever. You
may still be able to hear their voice and see them in your
mind’s eye as if they are still around somewhere,
if not in this world, then in the next – if there
is a next world.
The Barna Research Group in Pasadena, California, found
in a 2003 nationwide survey in the US that, although “millions
of Americans have embraced many elements of a postmodern
worldview – the vast majority of adults continues
to believe that there is life after death, that everyone
has a soul, and that Heaven and Hell exist” - 81%
said they believe in an afterlife of some sort”. Another
9% were uncertain. Only 10% thought that the body rotting
in the grave was all there was too it.
"New perceptions about the hereafter are being grafted
into the traditional perspectives. For instance, nearly
1 in 5 adults (18%) now contends that people are reincarnated
after death. And one-third of Americans (34%) believe that
it is possible to communicate with others after their death.”
Surely, death means the end of life, so, a priori, there
can be no life beyond death. Therefore, the answer to the
question is simple. Life after death is not logically possible.
But this is too glib. By death, we mean the cessation of
bodily functions, which can wither and perish in the grave
or in the flames of the funeral pyre. This is the death
of our bodily identity. But does it also mean the death
of our personal identity? The question then is this: Is
it possible to give a logically coherent account of a person
surviving beyond the ashes-to-ashes and dust-to-dust of
their physical demise?
There are many conceptions of life beyond the grave:
1. Survival through your bloodline
2. Survival through your achievements, influences and the
memories the living continue to have of you
3. Bodily resurrection of the same or very similar physical
4. Emerging from death with a different body (including
reincarnation) or ethereal form
5. The soul surviving without the body
Let us look at each of these in turn.
Survival through our bloodline
Even the most ardent mortalist (if that’s the right
word) would probably agree to the first two notions of survival.
They are logically possible and happen in fact.
a. If you have children, then through the passing on of
genetic material through your bloodline you continue to
exist. Over generations, your contributions to this pool
dilute and mutate. Nevertheless, it is a form of survival.
b. A variation on this form of survival is cloning. Setting
aside ethical and technical difficulties, if a clone of
you is produced that is like you in all respects, including
minute details of behaviour, memories, thoughts, attitudes,
beliefs and values, and so on. There is still a difference
between your identity as a person and that of your clone.
It is the difference in age between donor and offspring.
This is no different in principle from distinguishing
between identical twins.
Survival through your achievements, influences and the memories
the living continue to have of you
a. You will survive your death to a lesser or greater
extent through records and memories of you, your achievements
and the continued influence you have on others. The memories
of “you” may be distorted, corrupted and become
the object of heated debate as those who survive you unearth
elements of your past and learn that you had a skeleton
in the cupboard as well as the one in the grave. You may
even become immortalised in song, legend and myth. Some
people in fact achieve more fame – or infamy –
through their deaths than their lives. We talk of Elvis
living or Plato living through their works. But that,
in principle, is no different from the way we view living
people. We may be mistaken or deluded about the kind of
people they are or only recognise their value after they
leave a community. Some say that Jesus of Nazareth continues
to live only in this way. In other words, as long as people
believe in him he continues to live.
b. As an aside, it’s a twist of irony that the Pharaohs
of Egypt, who had a strong belief in survival, have in
fact become immortal, but not quite in the heavenly version
of the ideal Egyptian afterlife that they believed in.
And although theirs has been a bodily “resurrection”
as mummies, it has been as archaeological and historical
curiosities that they have achieved that survival.
Bodily resurrection of the same or very similar physical
a. Many of us talk of death in terms like “going
to a better world” or “passing on” or
“crossing over to the other side”, or “the
day of the resurrection”, implying that there might
be another life beyond this one. This throws up two of
philosophy’s key questions: the relationship between
body and mind, and whether one can exist apart from the
other, and the question of personal identity.
b. Using cryogenics to freeze bodies of the dead, in the
expectation of their revival when medical science has
advanced, is something that is happening now. The question
of body identity is like that of identifying babies in
the maternity ward. It requires robust labelling and records
of who’s who so your descendents will know who you
are and the tax department can claim back taxes for all
those years of your hibernation. Under these conditions,
will the revival of your frozen body be like putting carbon-dioxide
under pressure into flat champagne? The bubbly still tastes
like bubbly. At least you’ll know who you are, or
c. When you are thawed out a century later, will you have
the same memories, thoughts, and so on, as you did when
you died? Or will your death and time in the freezer have
addled your brain so that you and others who once knew
you many years ago don’t recognise you as the same
person? It is logically possible that you do emerge from
the freezer like Austin Powers did in one of his movies
as much the same person as you were before you died. The
question of whether you in fact do emerge as much the
same person is an empirical one.
d. The idea of the resurrection of the body appears in
the Israelite scriptures. For instance, in the Book of
Job we read, “My flesh may be destroyed, yet from
this body I will see God.” (Job 19:26). Among first
Century Jews there was a strong belief that the dead would
rise from the grave during an apocalypse. This is mentioned
in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in early Christian writings,
including Matthew’s account of how the graves opened
and the dead walked the streets at the time of Jesus death
– illustrating how his death was a cataclysmic event.
The story of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is
of his rising from the grave, complete with the wounds
of his death. It also states in the Nicene Creed of the
Church, “I believe in the resurrection of the body”
(it’s worth noting there is no mention of belief
in the survival of the soul in this Christian creed of
325, or any other major Christian creed).
e. You can imagine God reassembling the molecules of your
body at some future time to your unique personal template
to reproduce you as the complete human being you once
were. You might not get exactly the same molecules you
had at the time of your death (but, then, that is no different
in principle to how our live physical bodies are changing
all the time as cells die and new ones appear). What matters
is that you and others will recognise you for the person
you once were.
f. There is no attempt to isolate the body from the soul
in this scenario. It seems to avoid the thorny philosophical
issues of whether we have an immaterial soul that can
survive without a body and the question of establishing
our identity as individuals without bodies.
g. Does that mean this resurrection of the complete person
is logically possible, like it’s logically possible
that you are brought back to life after your body’s
been frozen in a cryogenic chamber?
h. Let’s imagine that Armageddon, the Day of Resurrection,
has come and everyone who has ever lived as a human being
rises again as the individual he or she once was. It would
be one huge jamboree of people of all ages, shapes, sizes,
colours, creeds and beliefs, reaching back in human history
to a primeval Eve.
i. Does that involve you looking like you did at the moment
of death – riddled with cancer, wrinkled and crippled
with age, cut and bleeding from the wounds of a violent
death, unconscious or comatose as you were when you passed
away so that you are unaware that you have been resurrected?
What if you died like philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch
did, from Alzheimer’s or some other disease that
destroys the brain? Does that mean Iris Murdoch rises
from the dead as she was when she died, not knowing her
Descartes from her Aristotle, who she is, or whether she
ever lived before? Or do you get the healthy body and
the mind you had before you died violently or began to
degenerate into old age and dementia? And what happens
if you were eaten by a cannibal? In the resurrection,
do you end up as part of the cannibal’s body or
do you get back your original body?
j. If you do get a healthy mind and body at your resurrection,
that raises the question of whether, when you rise from
the dead, you are the same person that you once were.
If it’s a semblance or even a replica of who you
once were, then it is not really you. It’s an imitation.
For it to be logically possible, you will have to be the
person you once were when you were alive in all essential
matters – how you looked physically and how you
behaved, your perceptions, thoughts attitudes, prejudices,
beliefs, emotions and especially your memories. This will
also determine whether others will recognise you as the
same person and whether you yourself will view yourself
as the same person. We would expect those who died during
the Crusades to rise, shouting vengeance on the Infidel
in a language of the Middle Ages, and for Queen Victoria
to be running around looking for her beloved Albert –
or would it be her faithful Mr. Brown? To use John Lock’s
words from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, we
would expect that there would be an “extending of
our consciousness back to any past action or thought”
– in other words, your personal identity depends
on continuity of memory of yourself.
k. Even though you mightn’t have seen your old friends
since your death centuries ago, is that any different
in principle from anyone else you know that you haven’t
seen for a long time. Your appearance will have changed,
but there are experiences that you once had in common
that you can point to.
l. How, though, will you know that it’s you who
has been resurrected? What if a replica of you with all
your attributes appears on the Day of Resurrection instead
m. We can imagine this happening, but unless there is
some logical way of differentiating between the ‘you’
who’s still rotting in the grave and your imagined
stand-in at Armageddon, it will be you who’s there
at Armageddon. Who does the ‘you’ still in
the grave refer to in this instance, other than the dead
person you once were? It’s not who you are now.
n. What if someone else inhabits your body on the Day
of Judgement? You look like you did about the time of
your earthly demise, and your family and friends act as
if it’s you. But you start talking and acting like
Adolph Hitler, insisting to God that former Jews, gypsies,
homosexuals and communists be immediately sent to hell
while Nazis of Aryan stock be sent to Heaven!
o. In regular life we do talk of people who are possessed.
That means that they act as if something or someone else
has taken over their lives. They may be deluded into believing
that they are Hitler, Napoleon, Jesus, the Devil, a cat
or whatever. We regard it as a delusion if it happens
before you die, so why not treat it in the same way if
it happens at Armageddon. The logic of the case would
become much more difficult if personal identities were
swapped with bodily ones, so that you found yourself with
Hitler’s body, but you still acted like you do now,
and Hitler had your body and acted like Hitler. We will
look at that issue of having a different body in Section
p. If you rise from the grave the same as you were when
you died in an unconscious state or with impaired memory,
this consciousness of who you are would be that of others
who remember you when you were alive. And if, by chance,
your resurrection includes a healthy body and mind, is
this any different in principle from the changes that
come from adopting a healthy lifestyle, undergoing cosmetic
surgery or waking from a long coma? Similarly, if you
regain your memory or lose some of your personal attributes
so there’s only a Mr. Hyde and no Doctor Jekyll,
then is this any different in principle from having undergone
intensive psychiatric treatment or regaining the memory
you lost? You are still the same person, even though there
have been drastic changes in your life.
q. So, maybe it is logically possible that you could survive
your death in a bodily resurrection.
Emerging from death with a different body (including reincarnation)
or ethereal form
a. What if the bodily resurrection is not an Armageddon,
as many Christians assume, but a reincarnation as another
being – another human being, an animal or even a
plant? The Bhagavad Gita says, “As a man leaves
an old garment, and puts on the one that is new, the spirit
leaves his mortal body and then puts on one that is new.”
b. There is some evidence for this view in the way in
which some people seem to be born with knowledge and experiences
that aren’t easily explained, such as the astonishing
genius of a Mozart. Hypnotic regressions to a former life,
déjà vu-like experiences and memories of
a past life that the person has no other way of knowing
about but which historians establish as substantially
correct, also lend credence to this view.
c. Even so, you can come back with a different body in
science fiction, because you are substantially the same
person with different limitations and abilities. In principle,
this is similar to your having prosthetic limbs and facelift
surgery after a terrible accident or acquiring a new skill
or acting a part in a stage show. You have many of the
same views, thoughts, attitudes, memories, etc. that give
you conscious continuity so that you and others can recognise
you as the same person in many essential ways. We often
talk of a cluster of personal traits that give you personal
identity and as long as a sufficient number of these traits
are present, then we say it is you rather than a pale
imitation of your former self or even someone else.
d. If, on the other hand, you are reincarnated as a mouse,
we would expect to see evidence of your former life in
your mouse-like behaviour.
e. But is that expectation reasonable? People who are
immobilised by a stroke may not be able to communicate
to others. Nevertheless, they can still perceive, think,
remember, have emotions and so on. Couldn’t you
still think as you did when you died while behaving as
a mouse in your new life?
f. The problem with having your identity associated with
a mouse is that of proving an ongoing connection with
your former living self. Unlike stroke victims, most of
us don’t have any memory of a former life as another
human being or any other form of life, and we are suspicious
of those who claim they do. We know that stroke victims
can retain a sense of their identity, because enough stroke
victims have regained their ability to communicate to
tell us of their memories of what happened and many of
these memories we can correlate with what we know happened.
g. Nevertheless, if you are a stroke victim, we accept
that you are the same person. But if you behave like a
regular mouse, the more we are inclined to say that it
is a mouse and not a reincarnated human being. The mouse
can’t both act in all ways like a mouse and be a
former human being.
h. You will probably want to interrupt me at this point
and tell me that reincarnation should be evolutionary,
especially for those who believe in Karma. A mouse has
a good chance of coming back as a cat and then as an ape
and so on until it comes back as a human being and then,
through subsequent reincarnations and good living, to
become a morally better human being.
i. The same arguments still apply. A cat can’t be
a mouse in its former life unless we can logically differentiate
the former mouse operating in the cat, and I can’t
see how that’s possible. It’s only possible
if cats and mice act like they do in anthropomorphic fairy
stories – as if they are humans.
j. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15,
St. Paul refers to how those who die receive a spiritual
body. This conjures up images of flying angels and ghosts
haunting ancient castles. But it could also refer to how
you change, as a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly,
into a heavenly form that can’t be perceived by
those who are living. Our personal identity becomes associated
with a different bodily identity.
k. But if it’s not the same body that you used to
identity with, how do we know that it’s you who’s
survived your death? We are back to the question discussed
a few minutes ago of how we can be the same person in
a different body. And the same arguments apply.
l. We are the ones who watch caterpillars transform into
butterflies and make the identity connection. Butterflies
don’t. It’s only in fairy stories that butterflies,
acting as humans would, look back at their former lives
as grubs. There might well be angels or other heavenly
creatures that exist in another world, but does that mean
we transform and join them?
m. Your consciousness or personal identity is bound up
in memories of how you behave and act, and that is limited
by how you think about your present mortal body. If you
are an obsessive swimmer and you can’t swim in your
heavenly body, then you have lost an essential part of
your personal identity. The same goes for the musician
who plays instruments other than heavenly harps, the artist
who relies on their senses to create, or the philosopher
who needs their brain to think.
The soul surviving without the body
a. When champagne goes flat, the bubbles leave their liquid
medium, yet continue to exist as carbon-dioxide, joining
with all the other carbon-dioxide molecules in the atmosphere.
In the same way, our essence – in the Hebrew Bible
the breath of life, the Ruah or, in Greek, the pneuma,
spirit, that effervescence – can’t just disappear,
so the argument goes. In the same way that the carbon-dioxide
from champagne continues to exist, our immaterial soul
continues to survive. In the Phaedo, Plato describes how
the body is a prison and how upon death the immortal soul
escapes from the bodily chains that have tied it to the
b. Evidence for an immaterial soul surviving death includes
near-death experiences and the accounts of mediums who
claim to make contact with the dead.
c. The experience of mediums or psychics suggests that
they have insights, which are sometimes correct and sometimes
wrong, into your former loved ones. This doesn’t
prove that the dead continue to exist beyond the grave.
For example, do these mediums read your mind or make shrewd
deductions based on your behaviour towards your dead loved
ones? And even if they do hear voices or have visions
of your loved ones, is it your former loved ones they
are having contact with from the ‘other side’
or your perceptions of your former loved ones that they
have tapped into? And why do some people have this ability
to tap into the memories of the dead and not others? The
question of how these mediums have these insights is a
matter for psychological research.
d. What about near death experiences? In an article in
the British Herald of August 1, this year, Lord Peerson
of Rannoch claims that while undergoing a painful operation
for varicose veins, he saw a ‘ghost-like vision’.
“He was unable to see the spirit's face but noticed
he was wearing what he described as ‘a greeny-brown
tweed suit’.He said: ‘It became apparent he
was some kind of messenger. ‘He reached out, took
my arm and led me towards huge granite steps that descended
into the earth.
’Each step was like a wave of deeper pain but I
took them, half-dreamlike, half-conscious, following my
’He then pointed to a huge doorway of a cave and
beckoned me to go through, which I did.
’He did not follow as I found myself in the presence
of God.’ He went on: ‘It was definitely a
masculine presence that felt warm, strong and compassionate’.”
e. In an article he wrote under the title What I saw when
I was Dead, that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, in
August 1988, A.J. Ayer said that while he was clinically
dead he had a vivid memory of being “confronted
by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful
even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this
light was responsible for the government of the universe.
Among its ministers were two creatures who had been put
in charge of space. These ministers periodically inspected
space and had recently carried out such an inspection.
They had, however, failed to do their work properly, with
the result that space, like a badly fitted jigsaw puzzle,
was slightly out of joint.”
f. Colin Blackmore, professor of physiology at Cambridge,
explained this experience thus. “What happened to
Freddie Ayer was that lack of oxygen distorted the interpretive
methods of his cortex, which led to hallucinations.”
Ayer himself later said that it did not weaken his conviction
that death meant total annihilation.
g. Ayer’s experience and that of Lord Rannoch are
similar to many who have near death experiences. Others
report out of body experiences where they look down at
their own body on the operating table.
h. The fact is that these are like dreams. You wake up
and remember a vivid and unusual experience. There is
no evidence that you, in fact, left your body. It is as
if you imagined yourself outside your body. And I, meaning
the person you see in front of you now, can shut my eyes
and imagine looking at myself from the other side of the
room right now. But this doesn’t mean that an immaterial
soul or consciousness has left my body. It just indicates
that I have a good imagination. Voltaire expressed this
notion when he wrote in his Letter on Locke “I am
a body and I think”.
i. However, I can close my eyes and have a personal identity
without any reference to my body. I can think and I have
my memories. Surely, it is this self-awareness or consciousness
built up over years of experiences that is my soul, the
essence of who I am as a person. I may need my body, including
my senses and brain to have those experiences, but biochemical
and neurological reactions are not the experiences themselves.
The experiences are independent of the body. Some philosophers
have argued it is this bundle of experiences, rather than
some Cartesian ghost-like soul or spiritual substance,
that survives the death of the body.
j. Does this mean then, that those who die as infants
or who are born without the ability to remember anything
about themselves have no soul? Are they like most other
animals – the brute beasts, as some philosophers
used to refer to them – who don’t have this
ability or, at best, have this ability in a rudimentary
form and therefore have no self-awareness or soul to survive
k. There can also be fake memories. You might think that
you are Napoleon Bonaparte and that you fought Arthur
Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, at Waterloo.
You may even convince others to join your Napoleonic army,
but you are mistaken. Similarly, you may be fooled about
who you are when you rise from the dead. The accuracy
of your memory depends on others who can correct it. But
that means they too will need to be able to identify your
unique soul. And how can they do that when you are either
an immaterial soul or a bundle of conscious perceptions
in the ether?
a. Even if we don’t produce logically coherent accounts
of a person surviving the grave, we may still believe
that we will survive our mortal demise. The arguments
against survival may be faulty. So, no matter what others
think, is it still logically possible in some way to survive
our physical death? Let’s look at the following
story to see whether this is possible.
b. I awake one morning with a headache, get out of bed,
and sleepily cross to the mirror. I stare with blank amazement.
Instead of the usual unshaven, bleary-eyed morning reflection,
I find nothing except the walls. I look back at my bed
and there I see what I used to see when I looked at mirrors.
This I find very vexing. My wife wakes and tells me to
wake up. My body, for this is what it is, does not move.
After prodding me and listening for my breath and checking
my pulse, she realises what has happened, calls the doctor,
then the undertaker - while checking on the validity of
my life insurance policies before booking an overseas
cruise. One could even imagine that I look down and watch
my own funeral.
c. This sounds like a plausible story, but it does raise
logical problems. I mentioned waking with a headache and
getting out of bed. But what woke and had a headache and
got out of bed? It wasn’t I as I was still in bed
with rigor mortis starting to set in. In fact, “I”
talking to you now could not talk of “I” surviving
beyond my death as there is no “I” to perceive
the post-death experience. I am not like H.G. Wells’
Invisible Man, who’s an ordinary man with sense
organs that others can hear and feel but can’t see.
The dead me has no sense organs to see or brain to process
the sensory information. There is nothing any more to
feel a headache or look in a mirror. I’m the man
who was. The reason the story sounds plausible is that
the “I” of the story shifts from the “I”
who is in bed to the “I” standing in front
of you now telling the story. In other words, there are
two “I”s. My survival is not logically possible.
d. Surely, with God all things are possible. Couldn’t
God defy our logic and cause our survival beyond the grave?
Although all physical things are logically possible with
God, God cannot defy logic. God cannot claim 2+2=5 and
get away with it any more than God can announce that you
will survive your physical death if that is logically