Pragmatic Arguments for Belief in Immortality
Most religions adhere to the belief in eternity on the basis of faith. In other words, they do not provide proof of the person’s survival after the death of the body; in fact, their belief in eternity appeals to some kind of divine revelation that is thought to require no rationalization.
However, natural theology seeks to provide rational evidence of the existence of God. Some philosophers have argued that, if we can rationally prove that God exists, then we can conclude that we are eternal. Because, God Almighty, cares for us, and as such will not allow the destruction of our existence; and being fair, will result in Final Judgment (Swinburne, 1997).
Thus, traditional arguments in favor of the existence of God (ontological, cosmological, teleological) will indirectly prove our immortality. However, this traditional argument has been famously criticized, and several arguments against the existence of God have also been put forward (such as the problem of evil) (Martin, 1992; Smith, 1999).
However, some philosophers have indeed tried to rationalize the doctrine of eternity, and have put forward some pragmatic arguments in support of it.
Blaise Pascal makes a well-known argument that supports belief in the existence of God, but may also extend to belief in immortality (Pascal, 2005).
The so-called Pascal Bet The argument is rough as follows: if we decide to believe whether God exists or not, it is wiser to believe that God exists. If we truly believe that God exists, we have eternal happiness; if God does not exist, we have nothing to lose, so long as there is no Final Judgment to explain our mistakes.
On the other hand, if we truly believe that God does not exist, we get nothing, insofar as there is no Final Judgment to value our beliefs. However, if we mistakenly believe that God does not exist, we lose lasting happiness.
By calculating the risks and benefits, we must conclude that it is better to believe in the existence of God. This argument easily extends to belief in eternity: it is better to believe that there is life after death because if there is life after death, we will be valued for our faith, but not lose anything if we are wrong; on the other hand, if we do not believe in life after death, and we are wrong, we will be punished by God, and if we are right, there will be no Final Judgment to value our beliefs.
Although this argument remains popular among believers, philosophers have identified too many problems in it (Martin, 1992). Pascal’s bet does not take into account the risk of believing in a false god, or the risk of believing in the wrong eternity model.
Other philosophers have invoked other pragmatic benefits from belief in eternity. Immanuel Kant famously rejects in the Critique of Pure Reason the traditional argument in favor of the existence of God, but in the Critique of Practical Reasondia put forward what is called ‘moral argument’.
The argument is rough as follows: belief in God and eternity are prerequisites for moral action; if people do not believe that there is a Final Judgment given by God to count deeds, there will be no motivation to be good.
In Kant’s opinion, humans are looking for happiness. But for happiness to coincide with moral action, belief in the hereafter is needed, because moral action does not guarantee happiness. Thus, the only way a person can be moral but still maintain happiness is by believing that there will be an afterlife justice that will equate morality with happiness.
Perhaps Kant’s argument is more eloquently expressed in the work of Ivan Karamazov (the character from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky) famous expression:
“If there is no God, then everything is permissible … if there is no eternity, there is no virtue”.
The so-called ‘moral argument’ has been criticized. Many philosophers have argued that it is indeed possible to interpret secular ethics, where an appeal to God is not necessary to justify morality. The question “why does it have to be moral?” It can be answered by appealing to morality itself, to the need for cooperation, or just for one’s own pleasure (Singer, 1995; Martin, 1992).
A vigilant God does not seem to be a primary need for humans to be good. If these philosophers were right, the lack of belief in eternity would not cause moral collapse. However, some contemporary philosophers, parallel to Kant and believe that secular morality is superficial because it is not satisfactory for acts of sacrifice that go against personal interests.
But other pragmatic arguments in favor of belief in eternity appeal to the need to find meaning in life. Perhaps Miguel de Unamuno’s work, Del sentimiento tràgico de la vida, is the most symbolic philosophical treatise that advocates this argument.
In Unamuno’s opinion, belief in eternity is irrational, but it is still necessary to avoid despair in facing the absurdity of life. Only by believing that our lives will have a lasting effect can we find the motivation to continue living. Conversely, if we believe that everything will eventually end and nothing will survive, it becomes useless to carry out any activity.
Of course, not all philosophers will agree. Some philosophers have argued that, on the contrary, the realization that life is temporal and limited makes life more meaningful, as much as we value opportunities more (Heidegger, 1978). Bernard Williams argues that, if life continued indefinitely, it would be very boring, and therefore, futile (Williams, 1976). However, some philosophers argue that some activities can be repeated endlessly without ever becoming boring; furthermore, God will ensure that we are never bored in Heaven (Fischer, 2009).
Death strikes fear and sadness in many of us, and some philosophers argue that belief in eternity is an indispensable resource for overcoming that fear. However, Epicurus famously argued that it is irrational to fear death, for two main reasons: 1) as much as death is the extinction of consciousness, we are not aware of our condition; 2) in the same way that we are not worried about the time that passed before we were born, we should not worry about the time that will pass after we die (Rist, 1972).
However, pragmatic arguments in favor of belief in eternity are also criticized on the grounds that the pragmatic benefit of a belief has no impact on its truth. In other words, the fact that trust is beneficial does not make it true. In the analytic tradition, philosophers have long argued for and opposed the pragmatic truth theory, and depending on how this theory is valued, it will offer greater or lesser plausibility to the arguments presented above.
Plato was the first philosopher to argue, not only in favor of the comfort of accepting the belief in eternity but for the truth of that belief itself. His Phaedo is a dramatic representation of Socrates’ final discussion with his students, just before drinking hemlock. Socrates showed no signs of fear or worry because he was sure that he would survive the death of his body. He presents three main arguments to support his position, and some of these arguments are still used today.
First, Socrates believed that everything had the opposite implied by it. And, as in a cycle, things not only come from the opposite but also go to the opposite. So when something is hot, it is cold before; or when we wake up, we previously slept; but when we sleep, we will wake up once more.
In the same way, life and death contradict each other in one cycle. Life is the opposite of death. And, just as death comes from life, life must come from death. We come from death, and we go to death. But, once again, as much as death comes from life, it will also lead to life. So, we have a life before we are born, and we will have a life after we die.
Socrates also refers to the theory of mementos, the view that learning really is a process of ‘remembering’ knowledge from past lives. The soul must exist before the birth of the body because we seem to know things that are not available to us. Consider knowledge about equality. If we compare the two sticks and we realize that they are not the same, we form judgments based on previous knowledge about ‘equality’ as a form. That knowledge must come from a previous life. Therefore, this is an argument supporting the transfer of souls (that is, reincarnation or metempsychosis).
Some philosophers will dispute the existence of Platonic forms, which form the basis of this argument. And, the existence of innate ideas does not require attraction for a previous life. Maybe we are programmed by our brain to believe certain things; so, we might know things that were not previously available to us.
Another of Socrates’ arguments is reminiscent of the affinity between soul and form. In Plato’s understanding, forms are perfect, immaterial and eternal. And, as much as its form can be understood, but it doesn’t make sense, only the soul can understand it. To be able to catch something, the object that is captured must have the same properties as the object that was captured. The soul, then, shares the attributes of forms: it is immaterial and eternal, and hence, eternal.
Again, the existence of Platonic forms should not be underestimated, and for this reason, this is not a convincing argument. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the thing captured must have the same nature as the thing captured: a criminologist does not need to be a criminal to understand the nature of the crime.