What Happens When We Die?

There are as many opinions about the potential for an afterlife as there are stars in the sky. Devoutly religious people anticipate a conventional life after death in heaven, hell or purgatory; some others believe in reincarnation. Atheists with an imagination conceptualize alternate dimensions. Agnostics assert that there is no existence after death at all. Einstein believed that no one could understand the universe, except through his or her own imperfect perspective.

Most of us agree that science gives us the opportunity to empirically confirm or refute any concept, including life after death. Many piously religious people despise science for that very fact. For example, we know through carbon dating that the earth is billions of years old. This is an empirical fact. It is as real as gravity. We can measure it. This fact disproves the biblical allegation that the earth is only a few thousand years old. But, what about other religious concepts? Might they be true? And, how can scientists reconcile their own religious beliefs, when they are in conflict with empirical evidence?

We know that our consciousness (everything we think about, all of our memories, values, loves, hates, fears and emotions) is the product of neurons firing in our cerebral cortex. When the cells of our cerebral cortex die, our consciousness perishes. This is the physical and legal concept of brain death. We can quantify and calculate it. In order to prove that an afterlife exists, we must demonstrate empirically that consciousness exits after brain cells perish and that it exists elsewhere. In all of human history, no one has been able to accomplish this. Until someone does, we cannot know that there is an afterlife. We can believe it on faith. But its certainty escapes us.

Some people use common near-death experiences to validate an afterlife. For example, people who have been revived from near-death experiences express common characteristics of the experience, such as “traveling through a dark tunnel towards a white light.” Yet, we know from empirical evidence that brains cells for visual functioning are often the first to cease execution in the absence of oxygenated blood. Brain cells can function for about six minutes after they stop receiving oxygen. It would therefore be normal for revived people to see their vision gradually disappear, mimicking a tunnel with white light at the end. This by no means suggests an afterlife; rather, it is a normal part of conscious brain death.

In the end, we do not know if there is life after death. If so, it has remained unproven (empirically) throughout time. If not, then we must accept that the sum of our existence occurs during the time that we are alive. Therefore, it is critical that we use every minute wisely. In this, religion produces a paradox. What if there is an afterlife? Would that imply that inappropriate behavior could be redeemed in the afterlife? Can we act with senseless brutality and be forgiven? Would such a truth enable humankind to be intolerant and vicious? Could the religious concept of an afterlife inadvertently allow for more hatred, mistrust and selfishness?

In the absence of science, when giant leaps of faith leave us wanting, we must turn to logic. The fact that we have doubt about an afterlife means that we should feel compelled to act in ways that benefit our descendents now. We must be tolerant and kind to each other, care wisely for our planet and deliver a world to our progeny that is better than the one we inherited. If we have only one shot at existence, let’s make certain that our actions are based upon wisdom, love and charity. If there is an afterlife, then we might have one more opportunity to act prudently. If not, we will have wisely used our only chance to create a better world.

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