There are as many opinions about the potential of an afterlife as there are stars in the sky. Devoutly religious people anticipate a conventional life after death in heaven, hell, or purgatory; others believe in reincarnation. Imaginative atheists conceptualize alternative dimensions. Agnostics claim that there is no existence after death. Einstein believed that no one could understand the universe except through his own imperfect perspective.
Most of us agree that science gives us the opportunity to empirically confirm or disprove 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 refutes the biblical claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old. But what about other religious concepts? Could they be true? And how can scientists reconcile their own religious beliefs, when they conflict with empirical evidence?
We know that our consciousness (everything we think about, all our memories, values, loves, hates, fears, and emotions) is the product of neurons that fire 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 it and calculate it. To prove that there is an afterlife, we must empirically show that consciousness exits after brain cells perish and that it exists elsewhere. In all of human history, no one has been able to achieve this. Until someone does, we cannot know that there is an afterlife. We can believe it by faith. But its certainty eludes 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 into white light.” However, we know from empirical evidence that brain cells for visual functioning are often the first to stop running in the absence of oxygenated blood. Brain cells can function for about six minutes after they stop receiving oxygen. Therefore, it would be normal for revived people to see their vision gradually disappear, mimicking a tunnel with white light at the end. This in no way suggests an afterlife; rather, it is a normal part of conscious brain death.
In the end, we don’t know if there is life after death. If so, it has not been tested (empirically) over time. If not, then we must accept that the sum of our existence occurs during the time that we are alive. Therefore, it is essential 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 allow humanity to be intolerant and cruel? Could the religious concept of an afterlife inadvertently allow for more hatred, mistrust, and selfishness?
In the absence of science, when great leaps of faith leave us wanting, we must resort to logic. The fact that we have doubts about an afterlife means that we must feel compelled to act in ways that benefit our descendants now. We must be tolerant and kind to each other, care wisely for our planet, and hand over a world to our progeny that is better than the one we inherited. If we only have one chance to exist, let’s make sure our actions are based on wisdom, love, and charity. If there is an afterlife, then we might have one more chance to act wisely. Otherwise, we will have wisely used our only chance to create a better world.