The old axiom states that there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes. I agree with the first as biological death is an inescapable certainty for all beings. As to taxes, whoever came up with the saying clearly did not consider people like Mitt Romney 🙂
All kidding aside, sorting different philosophies into dozens of separate positions only serves to complicate the discussion and in so doing, we seem to lose track of the actual point of the debate. For the purposes of this conversation there are only three absolute beliefs that can be summarized as follows –
- Those who believe that consciousness continues in some form after biological death.
- Those who perceive the concept of higher consciousness to be a fallacy and maintain biological death as the absolute end of the individual.
- Those who acknowledge they cannot definitively know the answer to the hard question of consciousness, assuming the question even exists at all.
Incidentally, for those of you who are interested in exploring this subject in greater detail I would like to recommend the free lecture based course on death at Yale University as taught by Professor Shelly Kagan which can be found at http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/phil-176
It seems to me that providing the answer to this question is the impetus for the existence of religion in the first place. Humanity fears death for individually we cannot know with certainty what the process of biological death consists of on a conscious level until we experience it firsthand. Yes, most religions provide their respective followers with both a concept of Deity and a subjective list of moral / spiritual guidelines, but first and foremost they almost universally give a specific perspective on the nature of death and what follows thereafter.
Other than the truly suicidal individual, most people do not wish to be snuffed out like a candle and forgotten in the darkness of the past. Consequently they fear death – the atheist position makes a very concise point here when it states that death is simply the total end of brain function and therefore also is defined as the erasure of the individual consciousness. This concept is unacceptable to most people and while I believe the atheist perspective would imply that any other conclusion is simply a function of denial, I find it interesting indeed that despite the drastic reduction in church attendance over the last fifty years, eighty-six percent of Americans, to this day, believe in a Supreme Being of some sort according to recent NBC polling data.
Why is this? There can only be two reasons that a majority of humans believe in God – Either God exists and enables this belief, or we make up the concept of God out of fear, the illusory comfort of the prospect then allowing us to avoid facing the prospect of eternal oblivion altogether. The problem lies in the subjective reality of individual perspective. Allow me to use Dr. Eben Alexander as an example. While I cannot endorse his new book as I have not read it, the story behind its writing is most revealing.
Dr. Alexander is a Harvard University trained neurosurgeon who believed in the atheist view point of illusory consciousness, as I call it. Simply put, he did not think that consciousness could be defined as anything more complex than a by-product of neurological chemistry and related activity (I find this extremely interesting as the good doctor self identifies as Christian, a perspective entirely antithetical to the atheist position, but I digress). To avoid a lengthy tale, the heart of this story is that Dr. Alexander experienced an NDE (near death experience) while in a severe coma resulting from a rare illness. This is relevant in that the section of the doctor’s brain that allows thought and emotion to actually function was completely shut down for a week. Upon waking, that development being a medical miracle by itself, he radically changed his viewpoint and now contends that not only does consciousness survive death but that heaven is a reality that cannot be denied.
Now, you could easily choose to say that Dr. Alexander has made the decision to believe a delusion caused by his malfunctioning brain and that such experience is not proof of God or even consciousness itself. There’s only one problem with that statement – clearly the experience is more than sufficient proof for the doctor himself. Whether we as bystanders believe him or not is immaterial. Those who do will probably buy his book and seek additional answers in their own search for spiritual truth.
I would like to take a moment to comment that I personally find those individuals who use spiritual truth as a means of monetary gain, who suck money from desperate people seeking answers, to be despicably repugnant. If the doctor had wanted to benefit humanity with a so called ‘proof of heaven’ he would have blogged about the process and allowed people to read it for free. Admittedly, if he is donating the proceeds of the book to charity I will happily retract this statement but for now it stands firm.
Ahem. Back to the main point of this writing – everything goes back to perspective. While I validate the point that personal testimony cannot be accepted as legitimate scientific evidence of the existence of God, I also contend that such testimony is perfectly acceptable evidence for the person who went through the experience in the first place. Again, whether we choose to believe that person or not is immaterial; no amount of external skepticism can negate the experience for the individual. Is this unreasonable? Perhaps so, but it is our perception of events, usually in conjunction with logical reasoning, that provides the basis for our beliefs, which is the cornerstone of my own point.
Where does the lizard fit into all this? No, it’s not Mitt Romney , despite what the republicans would have you believe (just kidding people). I won’t retell the story here completely but in my previous post I relayed an old parable of a chameleon on a tree with the moral being that individual perspective often colors the truth. Only the person looking at a situation from every perspective can see the complete truth and this is of course a rarity. In the original form, the parable implies that the lizard is God, metaphorically, and its color doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot outside of allowing us to see its presence on the tree in the first place. When the chameleon blends in perfectly with the tree to the point of practical invisibility it is still there, we simply cannot perceive it. We certainly should not claim it has never been there in the first place.