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 afterlife in heaven, hell, or purgatory; some others believe in reincarnation. Imaginative atheists conceptualize alternate 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 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 refutes the biblical claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old. But what about other religious concepts? Can 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 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. To prove that there is an afterlife, we must empirically demonstrate that consciousness exists 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 life after death. We can believe it by faith. But his certainty eludes us.
Some people use common near-death experiences to validate a life after death. For example, people who have been revived from near-death experiences express common characteristics of the experience, such as “traveling through a dark tunnel toward a white light.” However, we know from empirical evidence that the brain cells for visual functioning are often the first to stop performing 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 remained unproven (empirically) over time. If not, then we must accept that the sum of our existence occurs during the time we are alive. Therefore, it is essential that we use every minute wisely. In this, religion produces a paradox. What if there is a life after death? 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 vicious? Could the religious concept of an afterlife inadvertently allow for more hate, mistrust, and selfishness?
In the absence of science, when gigantic leaps of faith leave us wanting, we must resort to logic. The fact that we have doubts about an afterlife means that we should feel compelled to act in ways that benefit our descendants now. We must be tolerant and kind to one another, take wise care of 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 us make sure that our actions are based on wisdom, love and charity. If there is life after death, then we might have one more chance to act prudently. If not, we will have wisely used our only chance to create a better world.