What happens to you when you die?

Table of Contents

  1. Question
  2. Hypotheses
  3. Big Picture Graphic
  4. Bias and Wishful Believing
  5. Arguments for an Afterlife
    1. Near-death Experience
    2. Communication with Spirits of the Dead
    3. Divine Revelation
    4. Memory of Past Lives
    5. Indestructible Souls
    6. Souls as Pure Energy
  6. Arguments against an Afterlife
    1. Consciousness Ceases When You Die
    2. No Evidence of Souls
      1. Direct Argument
      2. Argument by Analogy


What happens to you when you die?


  • You cease to exist, never to be conscious again
  • You are reincarnated as a human, animal, or spirit
      • Reincarnation is the rebirth of the aspect of an individual that persists after bodily death—whether it be consciousness, mind, the soul, or some other entity—in one or more successive existences. Depending upon the tradition, these existences may be human, animal, spiritual, or, in some instances, vegetable.
      • In Hinduism the process of birth and rebirth—i.e., transmigration of souls—is endless until one achieves moksha, or liberation (literally “release”) from that process. Moksha is achieved when one realizes that the eternal core of the individual (atman) and the Absolute reality (brahman) are one. Thus, one can escape from the process of death and rebirth (samsara).
  • You assume a different mode existence while retaining your sense of self, e.g. being in Heaven
    • after Death
      • Eternal life is personal life, and precisely therein is fulfilled the essence of humanity created according to the image of God. Within eternal life there are differences. In the present life there are variations in talent, duty, responsibility, and breadth and height of life, just as there are also distinctions in “wages” according to the measure of the occupation, the sacrifice of suffering, and the trial (1 Corinthians 3:8). Correspondingly, the resurrected are also distinguished in eternal life according to their “glory”:
        • There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:41–42).
  • You merge with the Divine

Big Picture Graphic

Bias and Wishful Believing

  • People may be biased on the subject of an afterlife because of wishful believing.
  • Wishful believing (or wishfulthinking) is the disposition to believe
    • what you want to be true
    • what accords with your deeply-held beliefs
    • what’s necessary for your psychological well-being
  • A Conjecture
    • Many people believe in an afterlife because it’s important to them that they and their loved ones continue to exist after death.
  • Wishful believing isn’t evidence
    • The need to believe in an afterlife is evidence neither for nor against an afterlife.

Arguments for an Afterlife

Near-death Experience
    • Near-death experiences “frequently include hearing oneself declared dead, feelings of peacefulness, the sense of leaving one’s body, the sense of moving through a dark tunnel toward a bright light, a life review, the crossing of a border, and meetings with other spiritual beings, often deceased friends and relatives.”
  • Argument
    • The only plausible explanation of NDE’s is that an immaterial self migrated to another realm and back to its body.
    • In all probability, therefore, at death an immaterial self migrates to another realm.
  • Criticisms
    • NDEs are explained in naturalistic terms, e.g. by fear, stress, and lack of oxygen causing:
      • the release of pleasure-inducing endorphins
      • random neural activity in parts of the brain such as:
        • the visual cortex (tunnels, spirals, light)
        • the temporal lobe (body image changes, OBEs, flood of memories
    • NDEs are dreams
        • “Purported “out of body” experiences, as well as people’s alleged memories of events occurring minutes after they are pronounced dead, are no more evidence of disembodiment than are the dreams that many people have of witnessing themselves doing various things.”
      • NDEs are dreams and, like dreams in general, provide no evidence for events dreamt about.
  • Observation
Communication with Spirits of the Dead
  • Spiritualism, Mediums, Channelers
      • “Spiritualism is a movement based on the belief that departed souls can interact with the living. Spiritualists sought to make contact with the dead, usually through the assistance of a medium, a person believed to have the ability to contact spirits directly.”
      • “New Age ‘channelers’ claimed to contact a variety of disembodied entities. While the New Age movement disappeared in the 1990s, channeling continued to enjoy a large appeal.”
    • Popular Channelers
  • Argument
    • Some gifted individuals have communicated with spirits of the dead. 
    • The spirits are immaterial persons.
    • Therefore, some people have survived their deaths.
  • Criticism
    • It has not been established that anyone has communicated with the spirits of the dead.
  • Skeptics on mediums and channelers
Divine Revelation
  • Argument
    • God has revealed there’s an afterlife through religious texts.
    • Therefore, there’s an afterlife.
  • Example
    • From 610 to 629 God revealed to Muhammad, through the archangel Gabriel, the entire Koran, which Muhammad recorded verbatim.  Translated into English, one sentence of the Koran reads:
      • It is God who created you, then He provided sustenance for you, then He will cause you to die, then He will give life back to you.
  • Criticism
    • For any religious text, there are two competing hypotheses about its ultimate origin.
      • Naturalistic Hypothesis
        • The author or authors of the text expressed their own ideas or the ideas of others, without divine help.
      • Revelation Hypothesis
        • God communicated truths to certain people, who wrote those truths down.
    • The Naturalistic Hypothesis is simpler than the Revelation Hypothesis and therefore more likely, other things being equal.
    • Thus, establishing the Revelation Hypothesis requires especially strong evidence, for example that the book articulates truths that no one at the time could have known through natural means. But there is no such evidence.
Memory of Past Lives
    • “Reincarnation, also called transmigration or metempsychosis, is rebirth of the aspect of an individual that persists after bodily death—whether it be consciousness, mind, the soul, or some other entity—in one or more successive existences. Depending upon the tradition, these existences may be human, animal, spiritual, or, in some instances, vegetable.”
    • “The major religions that hold a belief in reincarnation are Asian, especially Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, all of which arose in India.”
  • Argument
    • Some people remember past lives, knowing things they could not otherwise have known.
    • A person is reincarnated if they are incarnated first in one body and then in another.
    • It’s therefore likely that some people have been reincarnated.
    • It’s therefore likely that some people have survived their deaths.
  • Case of Bridey Murphy
    • In 1952 under hypnosis Virginia Tighe remembered being Bridey Murphy, a 19th century woman from Cork, Ireland.  Tighe knew things she couldn’t have learned otherwise, facts about daily life in 19th century Ireland, kissing the Blarney Stone, and old Irish dances. Thus Virginia Tighe seemed to be the reincarnation of Bridey Murphy, implying the latter survived her death.
    • Criticism:
      • But the things Tighe “remembered” about 19th century Ireland, she learned in her early life.  As a young child in Chicago, Virginia Tighe lived across the street from an Irish immigrant named Bridie Murphy Corkell
Indestructible Souls
    • Plato, in the Phaedo, argued that the soul is inherently indestructible. To destroy something, including the body, is to disintegrate it into its constituent elements; but the soul, as a mental entity, is not composed of parts and is thus an indissoluble unity.
    • Although Aquinas’s concept of the soul, as the “form” of the body, was derived from Aristotle rather than Plato, Aquinas too argued for its indestructibility (Summa theologiae, I, Q. 76, art. 6).
    • The French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), a modern Thomist, summarized the conclusion as follows: “A spiritual soul cannot be corrupted, since it possesses no matter; it cannot be disintegrated, since it has no substantial parts; it cannot lose its individual unity, since it is self-subsisting, nor its internal energy since it contains within itself all the sources of its energies” (The Range of Reason, 1952).
  • Argument
    • The soul is immaterial and therefore indestructible.
    • Thus the soul is not destroyed at death.
  • Criticism:
    • The question is what happens to you when you die.
    • But there’s no evidence that you are an immortal soul rather than a stream of consciousness associated with a brain.
Souls as Pure Energy
  • Argument
    • The soul is pure energy, which is neither created nor destroyed. 
    • Hence the soul is not destroyed at death.
  • Criticism
    • The law of conservation of energy says that:
    • But forms of energy change energy levels.
      • For example, as a body falls its kinetic energy increases as its potential energy decreases. The total energy remains constant.
    • If a soul is energy, the soul is a form of energy, meaning that its level of energy can change. It’s possible, then, that the soul’s energy becomes zero at death.

Arguments against an Afterlife

Consciousness Ceases When You Die
  • Human beings lose consciousness when their brains are deprived of oxygen.
  • When human beings die their brains are permanently deprived of oxygen, since blood no longer flows to the brain.
  • Therefore, human beings permanently lose consciousness when they die.
No Evidence of Souls
Direct Argument
  • There’s no credible evidence souls exist.
  • There can’t be an afterlife without souls.
  • Therefore, there’s no credible evidence for an afterlife.
Argument by Analogy
  • Consider the hypothesis that every child has a guardian angel watching over them.
    • How would you go about determining whether guardian angels exist?
    • What evidence would you gather?
    • What experiments would you perform?
  • Souls are in the same boat as guardian angels.  Everyone is supposed to have a soul. But:
    • How would you go about determining whether souls exist?
    • What evidence would you gather?
    • What experiments would you perform?