A2 Philosophy and Ethics: Life after Death

Adam Cook
Note by Adam Cook, updated more than 1 year ago
Adam Cook
Created by Adam Cook about 6 years ago


A-Level Philosophy and Ethics Note on A2 Philosophy and Ethics: Life after Death, created by Adam Cook on 06/08/2015.

Resource summary

Page 1

Life after death



What it is:

Coming from the Latin 'resurrectus' meaning 'raised up again', resurrection is the idea that there is a post-death existence in a re-created (and perfect) form of your human body and so, therefore, is a monistic argument. It is a traditional eschatological (end of time) teaching of Christianity and Judaism and thus evidence can be found for resurrection in the Bible. For example; in Ezekiel 37: God shows Ezekiel a valley of dried bones and says that he is able to 'make them live again'. Jesus was also famously resurrected from the dead.

arguments for resurrection:

Thomas Aquinas adopted Aristotle's idea that the person has no truly independent soul, arguing that: 'The natural condition of the human soul is to be united with a body'. We cannot make sense of ourselves without reference to our bodies. This avoids the weaknesses of mind/body dualism. Saint Paul argued in favour of resurrection on two grounds. Firstly, since Jesus was resurrected, so too should Christians hope to be resurrected. Secondly, since God has created many types of bodies in nature, we should believe that he is able to make human bodies perfect. If we accept that God is creator, then resurrection seems a coherent idea.

arguments against resurrection:

• Christian arguments about creation or the resurrection of Jesus will not be persuasive to non-believers. • The idea of the physical body being re-made may seem strange or mythological.• The body can be seen as the source of flaws and limitations; desire, disease and suffering etc. We might be better off as non-material souls or spirits.

considering resurrection:

Jews and Christians today have mixed feelings about resurrection. It is a traditional teaching, supported by the Bible. However, many find the idea of a disembodied soul immediately ascending to heaven to be more comforting. Some also wonder whether such a distinctive teaching can be supported in the modern world.Rowan Williams states that resurrection lies 'on the frontier of any possible language'. It is a difficult, mystical idea, but a part of Christian faith. Whilst Williams may be right, is it acceptable to maintain a belief in something which cannot adequately be described?

Monism / dualism



Dualism takes its strength from the arguments of philosophers like Descartes who tried to prove that the mind or soul exists separately from the body in the act of thought: 'I think therefore I am'. The thinking self is different from the physical. A further advantage may be that it allows for mental continuity between life and the afterlife - it is the same thinking self throughout.However, this leaves us with a 'ghost in the machine' (Ryle), and there is a lack of scientific evidence for a separate soul. Some would say that there is no proof at all for this idea.

Monism (coming from the Greek 'monos' meaning 'one') by contrast fits with typical modern neurological views on the human person - our minds or selves are aspects of our anatomy, in our brains. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, it might make sense to assume that our minds and bodies form a single organism. Again, we can refer back to the behaviorism of Ryle - consciousness does not form part of a soul but simply reflects complex behavior. A religious advantage of monism would be the emphasis and value it places on the body. Wrongly, ascetics have denied themselves all physical comforts. Religion might be better off if it celebrates the physical side of life, instead of just thinking about the soul.

immortality of the soul

The dualistic belief that the soul is a distinct and immortal entity within the body which can survive the death of the body and ascend to the afterlife. Although it is not the traditional view of Christianity, it has been popular with philosophers of the West. The first major argument in favour of an immortal soul was given by the philosopher Plato. In his dialogue Phaedo, Plato sets the scene just before the death of his philosophical mentor Socrates, who decides to talk with his friends about death and the immortality of the soul.

what it is:

arguments for immortality of the soul:

Socrates believes that life cannot emerge from a dead thing. Something living must have given life to the body: 'the soul is that which renders the body living'. The immortal soul enters the body at birth and leaves it at death.Descartes added his own arguments in favour of the immortal soul in his book Meditations. He believes that he can prove that his thinking self exists with 'I think therefore I am' so therefore he is a primarily 'thinking thing'. So, basic knowledge of the self is independent of the body; the immortal soul is the source of conscious life.

arguments against immortality of the soul:

The view that the soul or mind exists independently of the body (or dualism) has been criticized by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle for being 'the ghost in the machine'. Ryle gives a materialist argument - our conscious life is simply the product of processes in our brains. He argues in favour of 'philosophical behaviorism' - the view that supposed mental events (i.e. the thinking self) just refer to complex patterns of behaviour. It is not part of traditional religious teaching - perhaps Jews and Christians should reject it?Descartes may have proved that we think, but that is different from proving that our thinking self exists independently.


what it is:

Reincarnation means 'to be made again in the flesh'. It is the dualistic view that the essential self (or soul) will survive death and be born again in another body. It is the traditional teaching of the major Indian religions - Hinduism, Sikhism sand Janism.Hinduism teaches that the soul (atman) is immortal and seeks union with ultimate reality (Brahman). Those who percieve the world for what it is - an illusion (maya) - may achieve release from the world (moksha) and no longer be subject to reincarnation. This assumes the law of karma - the view that we receive the consequences of what we have done in the past. The chain of past and future lives makes this law fair.

arguments for reincarnation:

• General arguments in favours of dualism may support reincarnation: the idea that the thinking self is more essential than the body, or the view that the body has a non-material cause.• Some have claimed that there is evidence of 'yoga memory': the experience of people, usually children, who claim to be someone reborn with memories of a previous life.• The belief is ancient, tried and tested. It has emerged from sophisticated eastern philosophy and metaphysics.

arguments against reincarnation:

• The arguments given by Ryle apply as easily to reincarnation as they do to the immortality of the soul.• Evidence for yoga memory may be flimsy. Stephen Davis argues that contact between families may allow children to account for a remembered 'past life' which they have not really experienced. He asks whether some cases of yoga memory are actually deliberate fraud. • Although Hindu philosophy is very ancient, that does not make it right. Incorrect beliefs may be well established.


what it is:

The Buddhist teaching that we have no essential self or soul (anatta); true selfhood is an illusion. Everything, including conscious life, is forever changing (anicca). This means that there is no personal afterlife, but instead a constant cycle of rebirth (samsara). Rebirth is a fixed principle of reality, not something created by God (not even the Great Brahma understands how or why it happens). The process of rebirth is governed by the law of karma - the principle that ethically significant actions have consequences. Ultimately, Buddhists aspire to escape from samsara by recognising the illusion, thus reaching Enlightenment (nibanna). In Buddhism, karma refers to 'volitional action' or 'intentional action' (i.e. something that is deliberately chosen). For these actions there are definite moral consequences. Buddhists claim that both the intention and the result of actions contribute to its effects.Buddhists distinguish four key types of karmic effect: 1) a fully ripened effect e.g. hatred leading to rebirth in hell, 2) an effect similar to the cause e.g. being lied to if we have lied in the past, 3) conditioning effect e.g. stealing may lead to rebirth in conditions of poverty, 4) proliferation effect; an action in the past will be repeated over and over again.Karma immediately affects rebirth, not because it decides our ultimate fate (because in Buddhism there is no true self), but because we are constantly reborn into different states which are largely determined by karma.

arguments for rebirth:

• This idea is of moral value; since we are constantly reborn we must constantly strive for good karmic effects. We are not just damned or saved.• The idea that we have no 'true self' will appeal to some, especially to those who find the idea of an immaterial soul to be too metaphysical or doubtful. • There is some psychological truth in the idea of anatta, since who we are is something which is constantly changing. I am not the person I was ten years ago.• By emphasising the enlightenment of the Buddha, rebirth stresses the importance of personal spirituality and compassion over blind faith.

'There is no ordinary-language self... no empirical self or person'.

- John Hick

arguments against rebirth:

• There is no hard evidence for the law of karma affecting our lives. It might fall into the 'naturalistic fallacy' by G.E. Moore in that it confuses moral ideas with factual information about how the world works.• It assumes quite a gloomy view of reality with the inevitability of suffering - must life always be this way?• It is difficult to live without the idea of a fixed or true self. Surely it's important to know 'what we are really like'.

arguing for / against life after death

arguments for life after death:

The question of whether there is a personal survival of death or 'afterlife' is one which has been debated for centuries. Ancient burial practices suggest that societies have assumed that there is a continuity between this life and the world beyond. On the other hand, philosophers have long considered the possibility of a terminal end to life at death. As the Epicureans used to write on their gravestones 'I was not, I was, I am not, I care not'.However, it is not just a simple question of whether or not there is a life after death. We might also ask what type of afterlife is considered (resurrection, immortality, etc.) perhaps it is the case that some are plausible and others are not. Still, there remain philosophical issues concerning personal survival of death which apply to many forms of afterlife.

evidence for life after death:

• Supernatural / psychic evidence: Some claim that there is evidence for spiritual forces working beyond the body. This may imply the individual's ability to live beyond death. Such evidence includes telepathy, spiritualism and near death experiences. The latter have been subject to significant studies from neuropsychiatrists such as Peter Fenwick.• Revelation / authority: Some regard life after death as a certainty based on religious texts, faith and teachings. Christians may see the authority of the New Testament as guaranteeing the resurrection of Jesus, for instance. Others may see a weight of historical evidence lying behind such accounts of afterlife.• Rational / logical arguments: If we agree with the likes of Descartes ('I think therefore I am'), then we know that our internal thinking self constitutes what is 'really us', rather than our physical bodies. Thought is beyond our physical existence.

Criticisms of evidence:

• The supernatural evidence is controversial. Much of it can be explained away through psychological analysis or is even sometimes a deliberate hoax.• Revelation seems to be a very dubious basis. We may challenge the authority of the Bible; the accounts of Jesus' resurrection are not consistent with one another.• Seemingly rational arguments like that of Descartes ignore latest scientific thinking: consciousness is a brain function, not a 'soul'.

The language meaning debate:

Philosopher Antony Flew has questioned whether life after death has any linguistic meaning in his essay 'Can a man witness his own funeral?' If a ship is torpedoed, we classify those on board exclusively as 'dead' or 'survivors'. It is accepted that one cannot be both. Flew argues that talk of surviving death is a bit like talking of 'dead survivors': a contradiction. Therefore, says Flew, the idea of afterlife is meaningless and untrue. Flew concludes that personal terms (I , you, him) can only apply to living organisms which we can experience or interact with.

arguments against flew:

Paul Badham is not convinced by Flew's arguments. In the case of our personal sense of self ('I' or 'me') the person word means something a bit different. We do not see ourselves just as the objects of experience: 'There is a real difference betweeen our subjective experience of our own selfhood and our objective experience of the individulaity of others.' In other words, there is nothing illogical or self contradictory in thinking about 'me' without reference to my body.

continuity and replicas: john hick

Materialists feel that we cannot survive death - there is no continuity between this life and what lies beyond. If nothing survives of the original life form, how can it be considered the same person after dying? This poses a continuity problem. John Hick answers this with a 'replica theory'. Hick acknowledges the continuity problem, but gives examples to explain how there could be a juncture between an individual's life and a perfect replica. What if a certain person cease to exist in a certain place but then suddenly appeared elsewhere? With this person being perfectly identical and conscious of being the same person in both places, it would be reasonable to speak of both as the same person.Hick's theory suggest that someone may die at a certain location but then live on in another world, with genuine continuity. The person is 'and indissoluble psycho-physical unity', from one space to the next.

the verificationist challenge: ayer

A.J. Ayer, philosopher and author of Language, Truth and Logic, argued that any proposition which is not analytically or synthetically verifiable is meaningless. Consequentially, Ayer rejected major claims of religious faith out of hand. 'God-talk' was dismissed as nonsense. In the case of the afterlife, Ayer also rejected the idea 'that there is something imperceptible inside a man, which is his soul or his real self, and that it goes on living after he is dead'. Ayer thought that there could be no way to verify the existence of a soul, and so talk of the afterlife would be meaningless. On this point, Ayer finds some agreement with Antony Flew. However, few philosophers support the verification principle today. It is also possible that life after death might be verified, if experienced in the future.

Show full summary Hide full summary


Breakdown of Philosophy
Reason and Experience Plans
Who did what now?...Ancient Greek edition
Chris Clark
The Cosmological Argument
Summer Pearce
AS Philosophy Exam Questions
Summer Pearce
Philosophy of Art
Religious Experience
"The knower's perspective is essential in the pursuit of knowledge." To what extent do you agree?
Chapter 6: Freedom vs. Determinism Practice Quiz
Kristen Gardner
The Ontological Argument
Environmental Ethics
Jason Edwards-Suarez