Religious and Scientific Views of the Person
Religions are not necessarily concerned with life after death—ancient Hebrew religion had very little concern with it. Most of the main religious traditions are concerned, however, with human liberation from egoism, hatred, greed, and ignorance, and access to a Supreme Reality of wisdom, compassion, and joy. This involves attention to and control of inner thoughts, feelings, and perceptions and, thus, a strong interest in states of consciousness—states the true nature of which may be hidden both from introspection and observation.
Most traditions have developed views of life after death in order to postulate a state in which egoism can be finally and fully overcome and access to the Supreme Good can be evident and immediate. The various models of Supreme Reality give rise to rather different models of an afterlife. They correspond to the five views of the human person outlined earlier in this chapter.
For the first three of these views (the no-self, the one-self, and the dualist view), consciousness and its contents have to be something that is capable of existence without the brain. Even for the fourth and fifth views (the spiritual-body and the replica-body views), it is doubtful whether you should call a glorified brain that comes into existence perhaps thousands of years after the original brain has died exactly the same brain. For the fifth view, it will be more like an improved replica of the original brain. For the fourth view, it will not even be a replica since it may take a wholly different form. So, all these major religious views seem committed to the belief that human persons can continue to exist in new and improved bodily forms (since the first three views usually include belief in reincarnation). It is just a question of how new and how improved they are.
These views assume that the thoughts and feelings of such persons are not wholly causally dependent on brains, which are physical objects governed by a specific set of space/time laws. There may be new brains, but they and their laws must be rather different in an incorruptible world. Thus, it becomes conceivable that thoughts and feelings could exist without embodiment in this specific physical body. The connection between a specific physical body and some consciousness has been loosened. If the dependence of consciousness upon the brain is also thought to be unnecessary, then it becomes conceivable that consciousness could exist without any such physical dependence at all.
Perhaps thoughts and feelings could exist without being embodied in any sort of physical world. Of course, if they did so exist, it is hard to imagine how they would obtain new information, identify and communicate with one another, or perform actions. It looks as if they would be stuck going over their old thoughts and feelings or doing boring stuff (for most people) like pure mathematics. Interestingly, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which speaks of what happens immediately after death, does precisely speak of a world of dream-like images, in which persons work out the unresolved material left over by their embodied lives. But this state does not continue forever, and it might eventually be unbearably tedious if it did. Even then, however, the extreme dualist theory— that ultimate liberation consists in an "isolated" state of omniscient and unchanging bliss—might be a possibility.
But for religious adherents who think it important to preserve some fairly strong sense of continuity with our present selves, extreme dualism will not be wholly appealing. If there is to be any possibility of learning new things or of communicating with others or of acting in new ways, there will have to be something like a body to make the reception and communication of information possible. It is for that reason that some form of resurrection hypothesis is preferred by the Semitic faiths.
If some sort of double-aspect theory of the human person is accepted, it becomes a question whether conscious states will exist in different bodily forms or without any quasiphysical forms at all. Religious views mostly affirm that understanding, feeling, thought, and sentience of some sort will exist without this body. But that is perfectly consistent with saying that such states and capacities in earthly life are completely correlated with states of the brains in which they are embedded.
For a believer in God, there is, in addition, one consideration that should exercise a major influence on the assessment of views of the human person. Believers in God seem to be committed to the possibility of at least one consciousness, that is, thought and intelligence, existing without a body. God has no body. And, however different and mysterious God is, it is at least more accurate to speak of God as knowing and acting than to say that God is unconscious and inert. So, theists seem bound to accept the idea that there can be conscious states without bodies. Buddhists also, who have no belief in God, believe that nibbana is a state of knowledge and compassion. For them, too, there is a desirable form of conscious existence that is not physical—though, like God, it far transcends anything that we can literally say about it.
Science cannot show that such views are false since science as we know it deals only with the physical—even neuropsychology deals only with reports of mental states or with neural or behavioral correlates of mental states and not with mental states themselves. Science can, I think, show that human consciousness, thought, and feeling develop with the development of the brain and can be impaired by brain damage. Human consciousness is brain-dependent, but there is a great deal of evidence to show that intelligent behavior and thought can exercise a causal influence on neural states.
Thus, it seems plausible to say that consciousness of some sort could exist without material embodiment, but it might be very unlike present human consciousness. Human consciousness is generated from and remains dependent upon a physical brain, though it can also influence neural states. The decay and death of the brain need not destroy consciousness, though it impairs the exercise of conscious abilities. Consciousness remains inert unless and until it finds a new form of embodiment that can reenable the exercise of its capacities. But such embodiments are possible—and if what religions say is right, some of them exist.
This implies a form of what Charles Taliaferro (1994) has called integrative dualism. Such dualism is not committed to the Cartesian thesis that nature is a machine or that mind is connected to body through the pineal gland. It is committed to the view that consciousness and its contents, though generated by the physical brain, are distinct kinds of existent entities and have causal influence upon some aspects of neural activity.
Because this whole topic is so highly disputed, it cannot be said that neuroscience or psychology, as such, dictates one particular view of the matter. But there is quite a lot of evidence that mental states and intelligent activity can causally affect the brain. Reductionist views can seem vastly counterintuitive, and nonreductionist physicalism does not really account for the apparently nonphysical nature of conscious content.
The soul is not a little (physical) man sitting inside the brain. But the human person seems to have a dual nature, having both a physically observable body and brain and a rich, colorful, value-laden inner world of experience and thought. These natures are tightly connected, and to separate them would be to leave this world in which we were born and in which we live. Most religious views think we can do this, precisely because the Ultimate Reality is a being or state of pure consciousness, and the goal of religious practice is to achieve union or perfected relationship with that Ultimate Reality.
Sophisticated religious views are wisely reticent about the exact form such union might take. The religiously important factors are that it should be in some intelligible causal relationship to the life lived on earth. It should enable persons to see their earthly life in the wider context of the divine knowledge and experience of all things. It should enable people to recognize and come to terms with the evil they have done and perhaps to find some way of making amends for it. And it should enable persons to grow further in knowledge and love of the Supreme Good, in ways impossible on earth. In these ways, religious belief is bound up with the possibility of achieving an ultimate goal beyond the death of the body.
I doubt whether science can have a definite view of such a possibility. Reductive physicalism would certainly rule it out. But a great deal of recent work in neuropsychology throws doubt on the truth of reductionism. My own view is that the most natural scientifically influenced position to take is that of integrative dualism. This would establish consciousness as an emergent reality that is logically but not (in this world) causally separable from a physical brain and body and that is capable of reembodiment. That would leave various religious claims about after-death existence as possibilities, to be assessed on other than scientific grounds—perhaps, ultimately, on experience of the objective reality of Supreme Goodness.