The Afterlife, Revisited

One advantage of being a philosopher is that you can spend time on, and even sometimes get paid for, delving into questions that so many consider impractical or unanswerable or just outright odd – such as whether an external world exists, where we get the notion of moral obligation, what is the best form of government, whether God exists, and whether humans have a soul that can exist after bodily death.

On the last question, if I could have come up with a satisfactory answer in the early 1970s, I might have become fabulously rich. James Kidd of Phoenix, AZ, missing and presumed dead in 1949, had left a Last Will and Testament, offering about a half-million dollars (the equivalent of 6 million in 2016 dollars) to anyone who would do research to offer concrete proof that the soul left the body after death. A couple decades later, 133 claimants fought for the grant, and it was finally awarded in 1971 to the American Society for Psychical Research. Unfortunately, the ASPR used up the money by 1975 – without results.

In that same year, however, Raymond Moody, a medical doctor who also has a Ph.D. in philosophy, published Life after Life, a book on “near-death experiences” (NDEs) of patients who had been resuscitated after clinical death, many of whom had extraordinary experiences of separating from the body and eventually returning.

Moody’s book has been followed by a multitude of books and articles documenting many thousands of cases in which resuscitated individuals reported viewing procedures in operating rooms, walked through walls, saw relatives and friends in waiting rooms and/or deceased relatives or friends, met with a “Being of Light” or angelic figures, underwent a comprehensive “life review,” and either were sent, or chose to return, to their bodies.

Due to tremendous advances in resuscitation techniques, numerous physicians, scientists, and philosophers have added their efforts to the study of NDE phenomena. Possibly some of them would have been successful in winning James Kidd’s award in 1971, instead of the ASPR.

Without doubt, one of the most extraordinary findings from a number of researchers has been the NDE experiences of blind patients, as reported by psychologist Kenneth Ring, cardiologist Pim van Lommel, and others. Ring reported that 80 percent of thirty-one blind respondents (fourteen of whom were blind from birth) reported seeing objects and persons in the physical world, something verified by investigators.

But although these are impressive cases, and all were “near death,” none of them actually died. They came back. Skeptics have predictably come forth with physical or neurological explanations for their out-of-body experiences – oxygen deprivation, hallucination, etc.

Philosopher Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J., in his recent book, The Soul’s Upward Yearning, considers worldwide and longitudinal studies of NDEs as possible evidence of human faculties for transcendence, but thinks these studies need to be supplemented by further philosophical and scientific analysis.

The Soul Hovering Over the Body by William Blake, 1808
The Soul Hovering Over the Body by William Blake, 1808

Spitzer, a student of the transcendental Thomism of Bernard Lonergan S.J., and also conversant with contemporary developments in science and mathematics, follows in the footsteps of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and other philosophers who have formulated rational proofs for the existence of God and immortality.

He begins with exhaustive studies of religious experience (the sense of being propelled towards something divine and “wholly Other”) by figures such as William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience), Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy), and Mircea Eliade in his numerous works on the philosophy of religion. Spitzer notes that 84 percent of the world’s population is religious, and discusses surveys about experiences of “something transcendent, mysterious, and sacred that is present as wholly Other.”

Like Aristotle, who speaks of the existence of an intellectual component of human consciousness, independent of matter, “immortal and eternal,” Spitzer focuses on mental powers and horizons, “heuristic notions” that unify general concepts and relations between concepts. These lead to greater and greater intelligibility, but always remain imperfect. Our sense of “imperfection” is caused by our innate orientation towards an attainable “horizon of complete and unrestricted intelligibility.”

In mathematics, Gödel’s theorem proves that even the most logically consistent system must have an incompleteness which “points to higher-level solutions within that horizon of intelligibility.” Thus in intellectual investigations, the process of asking “why” leads continually to other “whys,” and beckons humans toward a realm of intelligibility transcending sensory particularity.

Like Plato, who proposed that our ideas of perfection, such as “perfect equality” or “perfect goodness,” cannot come from the material world but must have a divine source in which humans participate, Spitzer argues that our everyday, profound experience of imperfections in justice, goodness, love, and beauty indicates an innate sense of perfection that, carried to its logical conclusion, brings us to apprehend the possibility of encountering perfect justice, perfect love, etc.

Like Descartes, Spitzer wrestles with the problem of how the spiritual soul can be interconnected with, and interact with, a material body. Descartes’ answer – the pineal gland – was a “non-starter,” but has inspired other hypotheses.

Spitzer suggests that the “trialist” (non-dualist) theory of Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist John Eccles may offer the best present hope of a solution. According to Eccles, since quantum wave functions can be collapsed to an “eigenstate” (affecting classical physical systems), quantum fields may mediate the immaterial and material components of consciousness.

The extreme example of this is the phenomenon of self-consciousness, in which humans “experience themselves experiencing,” catching themselves directly in the act of experiencing, so that “the same act of experiencing has two relative positions with respect to itself simultaneously” – something that is not possible for a material entity, and “strongly suggests that [consciousness] is transphysical.”

Still, philosophers might look in a different direction. Socrates, for example, after offering his proofs for immortality as a “raft for life,” commented that a philosopher would have greater security if he could “find some word of God which will more surely and safely carry him.” So also, Spitzer who, in conclusion, points to Christian revelation as the ultimate and unique answer to questions about the immortality of the soul.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Michael Dowd

    Belief in the afterlife is what makes this life make sense.

  • Oscar Pierce

    Fascinating, the next to last paragraph seems to speak to the concept that as being made in the image of God, we are perhaps triune in nature.

    • Sheila

      Interesting. That same paragraph jumped out to me too.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        The triune nature of man is understood by the Fathers of the Church Sheila as intellect, memory, and will. St Augustine refers to it frequently.

        • Howard Kainz

          Besides intellect, memory and will, Augustine in De Trinitate also uses other analogies: lover, object of love, and love itself; and mind, knowledge as “offspring,” and the love of what is known. Other Christian philosophers have offered different analogies. Gottfried Leibniz believes self-consciousness itself is a useful analogy — the Father generating a perfect image of Himself, and the Holy Spirit as the personal love resulting. But these are just analogies for a great mystery.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Thanks Howard. I like Augustine’s analogy of love, say a man for a woman. Love here seems emotive. If inspired by God it would be the love God gives us, an entirely selfless love. But for man and woman in a holy marriage, it is naturally both emotive, and divinely inspired selfless love. As to God’s love for his Son as well as for us we may say the Holy Spirit is love. An interesting question arises. Aquinas said spiritual love in man is by nature manifested emotively. Jesus wept at the funeral bier of the widow’s only son. He rejoiced and sang w the Apostles at the close of the Last Supper. The Apostle Paul says the Spirit [as our Advocate] prays within us, for us with inexpressible groans and sighs. The Holy Spirit here seems to mysteriously reveal an emotive identity with us.

          • Sheila

            I am full this morning. Thank You Holy Spirit. What beautiful thoughts of Divine Love to begin Holy week. A foreshadowing of the Love to come to us when we are at last in Heaven with our Beloved Savior.

            Thank you Father and Mr Kainz!

        • Sheila

          Thank you Father. Hmm. I need to work on all three parts of my nature. The hardest is the breaking of my will.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            This may help Sheila because I am so self willed, and will strongly, it has been a lifelong issue for me too. What helped me is the understanding that in doing God’s will, I am really allowing the beauty of God’s goodness, purity, selfless love to be evident in my thoughts and acts. That for me at least is more positive and works better.

  • grump

    There is compelling evidence that a great number of people comprise the “walking dead” in America. They can be found “protesting” at Trump rallies.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Are they evidence of a Zombie Apocalypse?

      • grump

        @Pete. I’d say more like evidence of the dictum: The difference between human stupidity and the universe is that there are limits to the latter.”

        • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

          Good reply. I wonder if it was Einstein. At any rate grump to my mind the current obsession with Zombies is Freudian. It seems to indicate the death of a ‘soulless’ culture.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    The very ability to ask whether the human soul is immortal indicates to us that the human intellect [soul] is not subject to either the limitations or transient nature of matter. Reason then points to a First Principle [God].

    • Paul Vander Voort

      What are your thoughts on Matthew 10: 28?

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        The analogy Christ gives is physical death on earth does not compare with the gravity of spiritual death. Spiritual death refers to condemnation and the eternal loss of God the source of all happiness. The body will be united with the soul in the Resurrection of the Dead at the end of time in this world. Those who have chosen hell will also be reunited with their physical body, reason being that man is a unity of body and soul.

  • Sheila

    I am not a philosopher. I am just a “regular Joe or Josephine” as they say. I found your article remarkable and very helpful to me personally. Thank you very much. Recently I’ve been “experiencing my self experiencing” on a more frequent basis. I did not have a name for this phenomenon, but I instinctively knew my experiences were from God and I wanted more if it. It felt heavenly to do this and truely embrace a moment in time. And especially during this Lenten season. This self-realization is valuable in helping me with my quest to stay holy in this world. Mind you, I have a busy mind with many thoughts; therefore, it has been a blessing to slow my thoughts down and embrace them one at a time. Thank you again.

    • Oscar Pierce

      Thank you Sheila, your words express my contemplation

  • olhg1

    Does the fact that God exists mean that human beings will perdure after death? IMO, a positive answer is a non sequitur, and it takes Divine Revelation to secure the answer that the Roman Catholic Church teaches.

  • PCB

    Who was it that said, “I think therefore, I Kant, and I find Bentham and Mills to have more utility”? To that person, I would reply, “Think again. And find better uses for your time”. – Before anyone takes offense, respectively, please know, I only jest. This is a very interesting piece, Prof. Kainz. While it’s rather above my height of philosophical understanding, the highest point of which can only tickle the bottom of its feet, I think, perhaps, with a second reading, I can better comprehend its assertions – and, certainly, the last sentence summarizes the point nicely, and more succinctly.

    I might only add, at 84% world religiosity, happily, this might suggest that Satan has been less successful with humans than he was with the Angels, if we believe the One-third estimate as the number fallen.

    • Paul Vander Voort

      I think Satan is doing a lot better with people than angels.

  • rick

    “Experiencing ourselves experiencing” gives rise to the mother of all human dilemmas. Namely: Who in the world are “we”? Every answer to that question that doesn’t cause total mayhem includes God, and He tells us there is an after life. ( Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos )

  • Guest only

    Interesting. I think back to my feelings of frustration as I listened to my former Jesus Seminar participant-pastor preach that the Kingdom of Heaven was only “right here, right now.”

    I’m so grateful to return to Mass again recently. Reading stuff like this is food for my troubled soul.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Readers here can catch Fr Spitzer’s programming on EWTN. Check their schedule for viewing times. He is well worth listening to and just fascinating to follow…even stretching the mind! Something the average tv viewer rarely has to do. Current spring schedules Father Spitzer’s Universe at 2:30 pm on Wednesday, as well as at 3 am on Sunday for
    insomniacs. The other encore show of his is shown at 10 pm Thursday evening.

    • kathleen

      Thank God for modern technology. We can always DVR Fr. Spitzer’s programs on EWTN to listen to and be inspired. Keep praying for EWTN that its mission will be protected and that it will continue to bring programs to all of us worldwide like Fr. Spitzer’s current program airing on EWTN and other social media. God is great and will not be undone. Keep the faith!

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Spitzer is correct. Man is self reflective of his cognition of things. He perceives himself perceiving things. That self reflective capacity distinguishes him from all other intelligent species and provides him with the capacity to reflect on his own existence, and the questions you present in your article.

  • Harry

    Spitzer has several great videos on YouTube. You can find them using the keywords “Spitzer” and “anthropic” in YouTube’s search engine. He also has a great website you can find by using Google’s search engine with keywords: Spitzer Magis Center Reason Faith.

    In my amateur opinion it has always been a “no brainer” that there was an immaterial component to the human intellect (and for that matter, an immaterial component to all sentient, living things). As Catholic bishop and saint, Gregory of Nyssa, put it 1,600 years ago in his On the Soul and the Resurrection, “‘the mind sees,’ not the eye.” Think about that.

    If science could so accurately analyze and observe the electrochemical activity of your brain as you stared at an apple that it could account for the activity of everything going on in your physical brain right down to the last subatomic particle, and if it knew exactly which activity was the result of you staring at the apple, it still would not find an image of the apple anywhere in your physical brain. Yet you see an image of the apple; you know that image exists. Where is it? In the immaterial mind’s eye.

    If fact, modern science can so successfully map the electrochemical activity of the brain that they are able to reproduce a rough image of what one is seeing based on that activity. But no such image is found in the physical brain itself. Yet it is obvious to the one doing the seeing that an image exists — they see it.

    In all sentient living things capable of “experiencing,” there is an immaterial “experiencer.” In the case of humanity it is one’s immortal soul.

    • Stanley Harrison

      one contrary thought about seeing an image of the apple when you stare at it. It’s the apple you see, not an ‘image’ if it. If you imagine the apple later, when you are sitting
      in your chair w/o any apple present, then you could speak of the ‘image’.

      • Harry

        Even when you are staring at the apple, your non-material mind, in a way we do not yet and may not ever understand, displays to you an image of the apple it somehow received from the electrochemical processes in your physical brain that were triggered by photons being processed by your physical eyes. A similar reaction to photons takes place in a recording video camera, but it doesn’t see a thing because it has no mind. There is “nobody home” in a video camera to see anything. Your see only because there is somebody home in your physical body.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    A fine essay, Professor Kainz. Thank you for such excellent “Food for Thought.”

  • Rick

    Maybe this is a mini-confession, but I’ve always wanted to make it to heaven to be reunited with my grandparents, parents, uncles, and hopefully long after my passing, my children, etc. Am I wrong for wanting this? Am I flirting with ancestor worship?

    One other thing to confess, I’ve always been compelled by the Hindu/Buddhist belief the each soul (human or otherwise) is like a wave in a vast ocean, it travels then reaches the shore (death) and then is collected back into the ocean of souls, later becoming a wave once again. Maybe that is why I love the beach so much. It is a beautiful thought, heretical, but beautiful (assuming I don’t come back as a cockroach).

    • Howard Kainz

      There was a medieval dispute about whether Aristotle’s idea of immortality pertained to individual immortality, or was something generic that individuals were immersed in. St. Thomas argued for immortality of individuals who maintain intellectual skills and memory of relations to others, etc. This of course is the Christian concept, much better than being absorbed into some massive super-intellect, I think.

    • ThirstforTruth

      Listen to Jesus who told His apostles about the life to come…..He goes to prepare
      a place for us …in His Kingdom, there are many mansions…. God so loved this world that He gave His only Son, that we might have eternal life. We have been given immortality so as every Catholic child is taught: we are made in His image and likeness, to know, love and serve Him in this life so that we might be happy with HIm in Heaven for all eternity. Have faith and trust in Jesus and you will not
      only be reunited with your family in the next life but you will have an everlasting
      happiness with them in His Kingdom to come.

      • elcer

        I often wonder aboutt family members who may not make it to heaven?

        • Mercy Mom

          Stop wondering and start praying. Seriously, since one of our adult children died, it has focused my mind on how best to pray for our children and others.
          The first Eucharistic Prayer is my best model: for the salvation, well-being and paying of homage to the Father, to you, Jesus and to the Holy Spirit of our son ___,our daughter ___, my spouse ___, my parents ___, spouse’s parents ___, etc!! I begin all this with the morning offering, and sometimes must abbreviate, of course. But I do also now how one could be happy in heaven if one’s children refuse it. Divine Mercy Chaplet is my hope!!!

          • ThirstforTruth

            Yes,,,,the Divine Mercy Chaplet can be said for those family members at either time of their death…or saying now and offering
            it outside the present time….at the time their death took place.
            We can make individual sacrifices ( the Sacrifice of the Mass is the complete sacrifice) for the repose of their souls.
            We are not to judge the soul…as Jesus told us, but may plead for
            those souls at the moment of their death ( even now) they will answer to Jesus when He calls them to come Home with HIm.
            Pray! Pray! Pray! for them and also for souls who have no one
            to pray In their name.

  • Michael DeLorme

    In his book “On the Theology of Death” Karl Rahner wonders—intriguingly though fruitlessly I think—whether the soul, at death and till Resurrection, becomes a-cosmic or pan-cosmic. The first condition sounds more than a little lonely; the second sounds kind of crowded.

    Which, tangentially, reminds me of an Abbie Hoffman definition; “Freedom is the right to yell “theater” in a crowded fire.”

    It being alleged that Hell is one rather overcrowded fire—and since he’s the “late” Abbie Hoffman—one prays he’s finding only gladsome things to shout about.

  • phranthie

    ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard . . .’ But we do speculate a lot on it. If Christ was going to prepare a place for us, then Heaven would seem to be a place. And where might the Virgin Mary be? My own tuppence-worth on the matter is that, if and when we reach Heaven, it will be a more familiar place, and make much more sense, than this present earthly one. I wonder whether Adam will be there, for many of us, I’d guess, would like to know just what he got up to that caused so much havoc.