Sunday, October 23, 2005

Is an Afterlife Meaningful?


Does the concept of an afterlife even make sense? It is true many religions teach or assume an afterlife for people. In some cases it is reincarnation, and others it is heaven or hell or something in between. But what does it mean for someone to leave this life and enter an afterlife? Put another way, how do we know it is the same person in the after-life? If I die, and someone called Daniel enters heaven, is that me, or is it just someone like me with my name?

One can ask: what makes me me? How do I know I'm the same person as that person that looked just like me and inhabited my house yesterday? Well, there is a physical continuity between me and that person, and I have the same memories has he had, and my personality is the same. Perhaps none of these are perfect answers as they are all subject to gradual change, but let's suppose they contain a majority of what defines me.

Now clearly death is the end of our bodies. So physical continuity between us and whatever comes afterwards definitely breaks down. Then at best, from an correspondence perspective, an exact copy of one could be made, including a copy of the states of all one's neurons so that one's memories and personality are the same. Now I doubt most people would really want this, especially those suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer's, but assuming an improved body just complicates the correspondence, and I'll pass over that for now. Assuming then that an exact replica of me is made, including the state of my brain and my memories. Is that me?

Well if this is possible, there is no need for me to die for a replica to be made. A replica could be made now and placed in an appropriate world. Is that me? I would not think so, and I would not care for that replica any more than I would any other person. Another possibility is that after I die, not one but two replicas are made of me. One is put in heaven and one in hell. What should I think about that? Which one is me or are both me? I can't say that I care too much about the fate of my replica or replicas and would not consider them me. So it seems there is a crucial correspondence problem between me and whatever being is supposed to be me after I die. If an exact copy of me now is not going to be me, then an exact copy of me after I die is not going to be me, nor is any other improved copy.

Some might reply: it is one's soul (or spirit) that defines a person, and the transference of the soul is what constitutes a correspondence of a person. That is, it is me if my soul gets transferred to that body. But what is the soul? What part does it play in one's person? Presumably it is a non-physical thing, as if it were physical thing it would join the body in the grave. But can a non-physical thing influence the physical world? If it does then physics as we know it breaks down at that point. So I think we can safely reject that, and so conclude that whatever the souls is, it has no effect on the body or world. So it seems the most the soul can be is a label for a person; after one dies the soul or label gets attached to some other body. But this seems strange -- why should I care about some other body just because it gets my label? Moreover, if bodies can be replicated, maybe souls can too. Then perhaps multiple bodies will get my label after I die.

To conclude: I have a direct connection to my past and future in this world, and I understand how my current actions affect the future state of myself in this world. However, even if there is an afterlife, I see no connection between me and whatever creature or creatures follow me in the after-life. It is the same as someone making a clone of me -- all very well, but I have no attachment to that clone. In addition, transferring or copying my soul into that clone doesn't build any direct connection to it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Meaning of Life


I want to answer the questions: Does life here in this world have meaning? And if so, how can we find it? In discussing this with my wife, we came up with three broad ways in which life can have meaning. These are: community participation, achievement, and sensory satisfaction. I will elaborate on each of these.

By community participation I mean the give and take of relationships spanning the range from that with one's spouse to that with the rest of mankind or of even animal-kind. We are part of a complex community, and being part of it, especially an active part of it, contributes to its vitality. We might teach, we may be a plumber, we may raise children, we may write books, we may be politicians or we may help the poor, and so on. We each bring unique things to our community and affect it in unique ways. Through this community participation our lives gain meaning.

We all have the desire to achieve various things, and by achievement I include creation and discovery. We explore new lands, we overcome struggles, we build small and great things, we design vehicles, we create art and aesthetically pleasing structures, we have children, and the list goes on. This drive to discover, to create and to achieve propels our lives and gives them meaning.

Finally in sensory satisfaction I will include emotional satisfaction and pleasure. We experience the world, we imbibe new drinks, enjoy great food, receive love, affection and admiration from others. This aspect of our lives also gives us meaning.

Whether our lives are short or long, we can each find meaning in these ways. Contrary to what some people claim and I used to think, it is not necessary to have eternal life to have a meaningful life. Rather, if these short lives on earth are all we have, then they are all the more precious and we ought to make the most meaning out of them that we can.