There are countless philosophical and religious theories regarding life after death, the foremost of which are materialism and dualism. Materialism is the belief that body and soul are inseparable and is commonly held by atheists, whereas dualism is the belief that the soul and body are separate entities and is common in religious thought. In examining these different views, a good place to start is materialism.
Materialism rejects the possibility of life after death, and denies the existence of a soul. There is not separate identification of mind and body; everything is purely physical, even our behaviour and thoughts. This view finds its roots in Darwinian theory and is highlighted today most strongly by Richard Dawkins in his books, such as Climbing Mount Improbable. He holds to biological materialism. This view holds that all life, including humans, find their sum total in their DNA. Thus death is the end because it is the end of the body.
Another key scholar in this field is Gilbert Ryle, who understands mental phenomena as simply ways of describing certain aspects of physical behaviour. In his book The Concept of the Mind, he argued that the idea of the soul, which he described as “The ghost in the machine” was “a category mistake”. He argued that dualism causes people to view the soul as something identifiably separate within a person, which he said was an incorrect use of language. He used the analogy of someone watching a cricket game and asking where the team spirit was; it simply doesn’t make sense.
Furthermore, a distinction should be made between hard and soft materialism. Soft materialists believe that people are not divided as in dualism, but they do not believe that a person is simply a sum total of genes. Unlike the hard materialism of Dawkins and Ryle, soft materialists believe in life after death. An example of a soft materialist is Hick.
Hick’s form of materialism has been referred to as the ‘replica theory.’ For Hick a person is a psycho physical unity, meaning that they are more than just mental processes. He believes that after death you live on as a replica, and exact copy of the person who died. Hick combined this with his theistic beliefs by stating that it God who brings about this replication. If you accept God’s omnipotent existence, this theory is plausible. The important thing to remember about John Hick’s ‘Replica’ theory is the distinction he makes between logical possibility and factual possibility. He himself claims that his theory is not factually possible.
We could consider certain illnesses as proof of materialism, such as genetic psychological conditions or brain injuries. In these circumstances the physical body effects the mind and vice versa, suggesting that they are not as separate as dualism would suggest. To quote Philip Pecorino, “There have been numerous examples of people who have had their basic behaviour change as a result of brain injuries … With all of this mounting evidence there are many people who believe that there are no non-physical minds, that we have only brains.”
On the other hand, dualism is the antithesis of materialism. This theory places emphasis on the separate existence of mind and body and believes the mind has dominance over the body. The two entities are connected but not dependant on each other to function. In terms of life after death, it is closely linked to reincarnation and resurrection, which makes it appealing to many theists.
The theory can be traced back to the time of Plato. He argued that the soul was immortal for two reasons. Firstly, composite entities such as the body are subject to decay but the soul is not, therefore it must be eternal. Secondly, Plato believed that there was an eternal world of ‘forms’, in which there are perfect copies of all that exists on earth. He argues that if this were not so then we would have no understanding of these things – or indeed concepts such as goodness and truth – since our soul is pre-existent.
He used the cave analogy to explain dualism: he pictured a dark cave in which prisoners are chained down and unable to move. There is a fire, so the prisoners’ shadows are projected onto the wall and they hear the echoes of their voices. If this is all they ever perceive it is logical that they would assume the shadows and echoes are all of reality. If a prisoner was to break free they would realise with horror that the shadows are not their real body. The cave represents our current universe and he prisoners are the people. It is only when we are released from our cave through death that we realise we have a perfect form.
Other scholars have added to Plato’s theory, such as Descartes. Descartes believed in ‘radical dualism’, otherwise known as the Cartesian method. He believed that the mind can physically impact the body (interactionism) and declared that the pineal gland of the brain was the point of connection between the two. This relates to his famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes considered the human soul simple, indivisible and immortal, and thus able to continue its existence after the death of the body. Furthermore, Aquinas also believed in dualism. He believed the soul animated the body and gave it life. The soul is the anima, the source of all activity. The dead body is still a body, even when separated from the soul.
Other proponents of dualism include Malebranche and Leibniz. Malebranche argued occasionalism, suggesting that the mind and body are not casually linked, but are connected by divine interaction. Therefore whenever we wish to lift an arm God must intervene to cause the body to obey. The main problem with this theory is that it suggests God is directly responsible for evil deeds.
As for Leibniz, he argued the so-called Leibniz Gap. He believed in a pre-established harmony between body and soul, meaning that there is only a non-causal relationship of harmony between the two. Leibniz once wrote, “I personally hold that a certain temporal punishment after this life is rather reasonable and probable.” This suggests he supported the Catholic doctrine of purgatory after death.
Dualism is central to many religions, especially Christianity. The Bible clearly teaches that the soul and body are separate, for in Ecclesiastes 12:7 we read, “the dust will return to the earth as it was and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism also support the idea of dualism through reincarnation, the idea that the soul moves on to the next life and inhabits a new body depending on the level of Karma developed and the nature of the Karma.
There is some evidence for dualism, such as out of body experiences and psychic experiences. For example, researchers from the University of Southampton discovered that consciousness and the mind may continue to exist after the brain has ceased to function and the body is clinically dead. This suggests a separation of body and mind. Overall, any theory on life after death can never be decisively proven.