Image by Tony Moore
I remember Stephen Fry saying “the most important philosophy is that even if it isn’t true, you must absolutely assume that there is no afterlife”, which has certainly stuck with me. We have to live with the responsibility that this is the only life we have, it may turn out (though unlikely) that it’s not the case but it would be a dishonest mistake to think otherwise. One could waste all their time in this life in anticipation of the next, of course if you can promise utopia (everything is perfect forever (eg, heaven or jannah, etc)) then anything you can do to reach it is justifiable, this is a terribly dangerous stance. Of course one can believe in an afterlife without believing in a god or a particularly religious doctrine, an atheist can believe in life after death if they choose to.
Ultimately, this question can only be answered honestly very briefly with a “no-one knows”. No-one truly knows what happens when we die. But it is those who know for certain that there is a life after this one who must be removed from honest conversation on the matter. There are many interesting areas within this field that can be studied, but they must be studied to scientific scrutiny for anyone to ever take them seriously.
A big reason why religions have survived so long is that they make promises of an afterlife, often a positive or negative one depending on how you act during your physical lifetime. Many of the claims and ethics offered from various religions have been debunked through science and secular philosophy, but we are not yet in a position to say what happens after we have lost our physical and mental capacity to live, while concepts of heaven and hell are currently unfalsifiable positions (yet also unreasonable), perhaps they will not always be.
Now, let’s not clutch at straws with regards to this ambiguity, there is certainly no reason at the present time to think that there is anything after the lights are turned out. As far as we currently know, our minds and consciousness are linked to our brains. Damage the brain, damage the mind, if certain parts of the brain are damaged we can lose abilities such as not being able to name objects (but knowing what they are), losing memories and the ability to generate new ones, all across the spectrum to motor functions and almost anything in-between. The notion that we can lose these faculties when the brain is damaged, but after the brain (and the rest of our physical being) is completely done with we can ascend into an afterlife, speaking our native language and being reunited with our loved ones is an absurd one. This version of an afterlife clearly makes no sense yet many subscribe to it. In 2010, 7.6 million children underthe age of 5 died, many through famine or terrible disease. The prayers of the parents (since most of the world believe in a god or are religious, therefore assume there is an afterlife) have either not been answered or there is some seriously wicked logic going on here. Bad things happen and sometimes people suffer, believing that it’s all going to be alright in the end and that justice will be served is really an ill-informed way of trying to come to terms with these facts and shirks responsibility of reality, surely there are better ways?
Science is not against an afterlife in principle, if it does turn out that we have a consciousness or “soul” separate from our physical bodies or that we turn into some kind of special material that transcends the physical world, then one day it will probably become observable, and if that ever is the case then it will fall within the realm of science to explain it. Of course, there is no current (good) evidence that this is the case, but what’s the bet that iron-age myths attempt to scupper honest scientific inquiry should that day arise?
The first law of thermodynamics stats that energy cannot be created or destroyed (only changed), but this leads no credence to any worthwhile existence after we die. It's nice that the atoms that make up my body might end up somewhere else, but it's no more important than every time you drink a glass of water you are quite likelyimbibing at least one atom that passed through the bladder of Aristotle (or insert alternative historical figure should you desire), since there are many more molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in the sea. If our "self" as we know it is destroyed after we die then for all intents and purposes there is no afterlife of any use worth speaking despite what might happen to this energy. The natural recycling that goes on in the universe is a beautiful thing but it's just that, recycling. A star had to die for us to be here, there is enough beauty to be had in what we currently know about the lifecycle of stars and galaxies to really lend too much weight to things we just want to be true.
Claims that near death experiences are clear indications of an afterlife are currently weak. First of all, we have to realise that these are near death experiences, they’re not actually dead, yes some people have been medically dead, but again, no-one talks of such people being resurrected. The experience of a NDE can be replicated in the lab with drugs, so this unfortunately tells us little about the process of dying and more about the brain itself. If you hear that someone died a few days ago and you then see them in the flesh, the original report was incorrect. It’s certainly worth pointing out that if NDE, outer body experiences, etc were to be true, it certainly doesn’t prove the existence of god (for a start, which one?).
Of course there is a comfort to believing in an afterlife, be it for ourselves or loved ones or to comfort those who are grieving. What comfort can someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife give to a believer who has suffered a terrible loss? What can we tell children who may struggle to understand death? I think as usual it just boils down to intellectual honesty. Few people would want to point out the logical flaws of those who are recently grieving, hoping (or convinced) that their loved one(s) are now in heaven/paradise, etc and that they will be reunited with them in the future. There are clearly right and wrong times and manners in which to have these conversations. The idea of an afterlife may act as a useful placebo to some. As Lucretius noted, if death is synonymous with non-existence then there is nothing to fear. But of course we worry about the process of dying, nobody wants to experience a painful death or the loss of loved ones and no-one wants to be forgotten. But there should also be some form of understanding that death is the one thing that unites everything, it's the one thing that absolutely everything has in common and is a natural process.
There’s also the issue of what to do with our bodies after we have ceased to be. Burial, cremation, etc, most people have their own views on this. There are two newer methods. Resomation, which basically dissolves most of you into a sterile liquid which can be put back into the water supply (bone ash is returned to the family); there’s also promession, which essentially dry freezes your body to liquid nitrogen and then breaks down into a biodegradable substance that can be used as fertiliser. Both of these options seem tempting as we surely run the risk of running out of physical burial space at some point, and I’m not keen on the carbon emissions caused from cremation. We’ve all spent our lives living off this planet so I quite like the idea of giving something back that can be useful (which includes becoming mere worm food). I would add of course, that if you’re convinced of a future zombie apocalypse and fancy a second go, traditional burials might be your best bet, but then, why have a coffin? There are brains to be eaten and that solid casket is going to pose a terrible problem from the start.
For me there is no afterlife, but hey, I like surprises. In the meantime, let’s be good and honest to each other while we’re here. The thought of living our lives through want of reward or fear of punishment in the next one is to me a dishonest position. We have to realise that the universe is the way that it is, not the way we would like it to be. But who wants to live forever anyway? Christopher Hitchens made a comment that life is like being at a party and being tapped on the shoulder and told one day that the party is over and that you have to go now while everyone else is still having fun, but the (religious) afterlife is being told "great news, this party is going on forever... and you can't leave, and you have to have a good time, the boss commands it!".