By: Fermon Brown
Edited by: Jacob Dawson-Brown
The one thing that all religions and science have in common is that they attempt to answer the basic questions of our existence. One question above all others burns to be answered. It is a simple question, yet so many complex issues depend upon how it is answered. Science, religion, and the gulf between them, basic philosophical issues of man’s purpose and destiny depend upon the answer.
How we view and organize our lives, how we find the strength to face life – and justify our very existences depends upon the answer to this simple question. Yet here lies the paradox upon which our lives are built. This question has no answer! Oh, there are answers, plenty of them, but no definitive answer that settles the issue. Ultimately we choose the answer that makes the most sense to us. We then proceed to organize our lives, ad hoc, based upon the answer we’ve chosen.
There is certainly no consensus on which answer makes the most sense. Therefore, people tend to segregate from, or unify with, one another based upon their chosen answer. Philosophies, politics, and religions organize around the particular answer one chooses. Yet we know the answer we’ve chosen is just that: a choice! And we live our lives with the uneasy knowledge that we do not know, really know, without a shadow of a doubt, the answer to the most basic question of our existence: “Will I cease to be? What will happen after we inevitably cross the line from life to death? Will my life be extinguished as if I had never even lived?” This is the question, simple and unanswerable, yet without the answer nothing is certain.
As already mentioned there is no shortage of answers, some very subtle, some very creative. Within this latter category are those “answers that refuse to answer.” Having realized the impossibility of the task (after all, how would a living being presume answer that which death would preclude.) These religions and intellectual regimens choose to offer their best attempts. One example from the realm of religion is the assertion that only God knows what happens to the individual at death. Counseling the disciple that by placing faith in God and God alone one need not despair. Whatever God has in store for us, his benevolence will prevail. To seek knowledge more than this is to demonstrate a lack of faith.
Another interesting “answer that refuses to answer” comes from mystical religious teachings, frequently attributed to Eastern religions such as: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. This same mystical teaching can be found in Christian Gnosticism, Sufism, and Jewish Mysticism. The basic principal is this: knowledge of death can only truly come from experience. This being the case, to understand the reality of death, one must die and be reborn while maintaining consciousness.
This idea of “dying and being reborn” is very foreign to the western mind. When Christians speak of “death and rebirth” they intend to convey a cathartic experience of renouncing ones past life as a sinner. Then by embracing God wholly and completely they are reborn. This use of the words “death and rebirth is meant to be symbolic of the aforementioned experience.
The mystical use of these terms “death and rebirth” in Eastern culture has immediate parallels in their belief of reincarnation. This being the prevailing religious view as opposed to the Western religious concept that one dies, experiences judgment, and is consigned to eternity. Even in Western religion reincarnation does exist. Jesus Christ according to Christianity died upon the cross, was resurrected, and ascended to Heaven. Only to be reincarnated at some future time (the Second Coming). Though reincarnation is a reality only for Jesus, it nonetheless should be recognized as such by Christianity.
To the question: “What happens when you die?” The mystical answer then is; “find out for yourself through experience.” Then depending on which mystical path you choose, you will encounter a set of principals that if properly applied promise to lead one through a process of spiritual death and rebirth (enlightenment). The basic principals whether espoused by the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, or Jesus, are to pray, fast, and meditate in solitude until one faces death and conquers their fear through embracing and experiencing death and therefore achieving enlightenment. After all, to know through direct experience that death is nothing to fear – merely the transition to eternity – is to transcend fear. By answering this one simple question, all the ensuing complexities are solved as well.
This mystical answer is very appealing to existentialists such as myself, because we place our faith in experience and this approach to the ancient question councils experience as the answer. But two problems immediately appear. One problem is that achieving enlightenment is hard work, takes time, and success is by no means guaranteed to all.
The second problem is that of science. Science in the 21st century doesn’t exactly embrace the mystical teachings I’ve described. Science has long been at odds with religion and many religious assertions. When using the term “Science” I mean to refer to that tradition also called rationalism, which seeks to prove or disprove all assertions through experimentation without prejudice. In earlier times religion and philosophy were much more closely aligned in meaning and in large part they occupied the territory now claimed by science in mankind’s understanding of life.
Essentially, religion was mankind’s first attempt to explain the workings of the world. The assertions of our religions were our best attempts to explain our existence. There was no need for faith in these assertions as there was no conflicting data. Faith in the benevolence of God was the sole religious requirement. The assertion of how the world was created and how it operated (as explained by religion) required no faith at all. This was fact, reality pure and simple, unchallenged. As religion became codified into tradition and dogma, mankind’s knowledge base inevitably grew and diverged. As this divergence grew (between data and religious assertions), philosophy became something separate from, and often at odds with, religion. With the eventual birth of the Scientific Method (and rational determinism) the religious requirements of faith grew into areas previously occupied solely by religion. Now to understand the workings of the world, what is factual and true, became a choice. As conflicts between religious dogma and scientific data became obvious and pronounced, people were forced to confront these conflicts.
Today, in the Judeo Christian Tradition, an obvious conflict exists between the theory of “The Big Bang”, a theory arising from Einstein’s theory of “General Relativity”; and between the biblical accounting of “Creation” espoused in the book of Genesis. To hold both explanations of creation as literally true and factual would not be possible. To believe in both accounts, literally, would be illogical and counterintuitive.
Faced with this conflict some disciples of Christianity and Judaism choose, as devout followers, to believe in “creationism” as literal truth, to the total exclusion of Einstein’s theory of the “Big Bang”, and any other conflicting scientific and religious assertions. Those who choose thusly often seek to disprove the prevailing scientific theory of “The Big Bang” through scientific means. Often citing inconsistent or conflicting data in their counter arguments. Occasionally I’ve encountered arguments by biblical devotees that knowingly mischaracterize data and intentionally misquote their scientifically minded opponents. How they can ethically justify this, as religious adherents, is quite intriguing to me. My guess is that they see this as a battle for men’s hearts, minds, and souls, and therefore their justification, with stakes so high, is that the ends justify the means. This seems repugnant, but no more so than, supposed men of science that seek to prevail through ridicule.
The opposite extreme of the “Biblical Creationists are those who state that the biblical accounts are unequivocally wrong, at best, outdated myth. Another choice is made by those who see the scientific data as compelling, and yet adhere to their religious devotion by asserting that the biblical account is merely an allegory or metaphor and that it was never meant to be taken literally. This stance allows its adherents to accept what seems to be, undeniably, the best hypothesis, and still maintain the infallibility of their document of faith: the Bible. This stance is very attractive to scientifically minded people who wish to continue their embrace of the traditional Judeo-Christian religion. Although this position is easily intellectually defensible, it doesn’t appear to me to be unflinchingly honest. This argument, in my opinion, side-steps the basic issue. Religion frequently espouses “truth” that in the 21st century is no longer true. Herein lies my chosen position: yes, religion is sometimes meant to be symbolically and metaphorically understood, but at other times traditional religious accounts are meant to be taken literally, and they are wrong. At one time they were humanity’s best guess, but as our knowledge has continued to grow, it has outgrown these antiquated answers that no longer apply. I’m more interested in finding what is timeless and true in religion (universal truth) than defending that which no longer applies.
As for our question of death and the possibility of the “afterlife”, religion resoundingly states that, “YES! There is an afterlife!” As well as the previously mentioned religious answers of unquestioning faith and direct or mystical experience, religions the world over, and throughout time, emphatically assert the existence of an “afterlife”. Whether it’s called heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo, nirvana, the happy hunting ground, Elysian Fields… the one salient feature of religion is the belief of an afterlife.
Science on the other hand, whether it states “we cannot say for lack of data”, or flatly “death is the end of life”. The one salient feature of science is the conclusion that “as objective fact there is no proof of an afterlife.”
It may be that religious adherents simply cannot accept the futility and despair they feel when forced to face death as the end. Without the comfort of an afterlife, life loses meaning. What of suffering and duty when there is nothing greater to aspire to? Can it be that one’s name is only spoken to the wind? And what of that “feeling” innate from our earliest memories that we are timeless, undying, and immortal? A “feeling” we have to learn is fallacy, incorrect, because it is illogical. It cannot be!
After all, when science replaces religion, it becomes religion. Originally religion was man’s best guess and therefore we believed it without question. Since it encompassed all the available data, there could be no other answer. And now science is man’s best guess, encompassing all of the available data. In essence, what science says, we regard as fact. All other intellectual regimens must conform to the facts” as stated by science. Any intellectual regimen that does not conform to accepted scientific “fact” loses its relevance. As previously described, this is the situation religion is faced with today.
People are not born as “scientists.” We are born trusting our innate feelings and intuitions. As we develop from infancy, we are taught to think logically and to discount any feelings and intuitions that do not conform to what is logical. As this transformation is accomplished, science becomes our true” religion. So elevated in our understanding, we neither realize nor question the validity of our basic assumption, “That which is scientific is valid, that which is not scientific is invalid.”
With this intellectual transformation completed, traditional religious beliefs become something we must accommodate, a process we addressed earlier. Also, as stated earlier, science involved the documentation of data collected without “prejudice.” Though it might aspire otherwise, science is a pursuit of human kind, and therefore quite capable and prone to “prejudices.” In fact, a kind of prejudice is inherent in science. This prejudice is obvious in the statement, “it is illogical therefore incorrect.” This is only the case when one is prejudiced in favor of logic. For instance, love does not need to be logical to be valid, and when considering love, correctness does not even apply. I am firmly convinced that by reclaiming our innate intuitions and feelings we will enhance our ability to understand the true nature of death and the question of the “afterlife”. A great deal of life does not conform to logic, though it is nonetheless quite valid. Love and desire certainly can be explained scientifically. For instance, the necessity of the species to bond, multiply, and nurture one’s offspring as explained in the “theory of evolution”. These “emotions” are explained as chemical processes of the interaction of our hormones on the appropriate neurological receptor sites within the brain. Although this explanation may be logical it is inappropriate, irrelevant, and obviously inadequate when trying to explain the experience of “love”. Nothing contained in the scientific explanation is incorrect. From the scientific “viewpoint”, this explanation covers nature’s imperative and the biological processes involved well enough. “Viewpoint”, here, being the key word. From the “viewpoint” of one who is experiencing the wonder and the power of love, the scientific explanation is far too sterile, unemotional, and lifeless. In short, the scientific “viewpoint” is but a facet of a much larger answer. After all, science is a viewpoint, a way of looking at, analyzing, and explaining our existence. It is a viewpoint that effectively explains the mechanics of phenomena. Science is, or at least aspires to be, objective, but our human experience of this objective world is largely subjective. Although our brains are capable of deducing objective fact, our experience of that objective reality is largely a subjective experience.
Let’s look for a moment at some of the things that animate our lives. Those experiences that give our lives meaning and purpose. As already mentioned, love. Love for our mates, children, parents, families, and friends. Even for our fellow man. To describe any one of these experiences sufficiently would take volumes. In fact, one could assert that no description of love could ever be truly “sufficient”. Our lives are full of these experiences, such as hope, peace, charity, bliss, desire, joy, and satisfaction, to name a few. This list is obviously a list of emotions, but emotions do not exist independent of life’s situations. Emotions as we live them, exist around situations. These situations, as we experience them comprise our lives. This list of experiences, without question, also contains the negative emotions of life. Life, whether we live it in joy, or fear, is experienced subjectively. We have no choice in the matter. Our humanity dictates that our experience of life will be subjective. To regard the subjective as being nonfactual, therefore not valid, would be a great mistake. If this were so, then we would be forced to view our lives as being invalid. Hopefully our faith in science and objectivity will never be so great that we view these subjective experiences of life; life as we live it, as having no validity.
Now, let’s examine the objective evidence as it applies to the question of death and the afterlife, or lack thereof. The objective evidence clearly indicates there is no afterlife. The body dies and there is no longer any measurable indication of life or activity in the body, followed by decomposition. When you die, you’re dead, and that’s it! Except in the rare case when the body is quickly revived. And it is in these cases that we find the occasional contradictory experience. Rarely, but in ever increasing numbers, we’ve begun to hear testimony of encounters indicating the possibility of some type of afterlife experience. Admittedly rare and obviously the exception to the rule. The interesting thing about these reported accounts is their similarity. People report being enveloped in a bright, white, warming light, with overwhelming sensations of infinitude, time eternal, and an emotional component of bliss and peace. Many report the feeling of being in a loving and benevolent presence. These components manifest themselves in various forms and sequences, but remain the salient features of the experience. People of various ages, races, and backgrounds with vastly different cultures and religious beliefs invariably recount remarkably similar occurrences. The comparisons with religious accounts of Heaven or Nirvana (the eternal reward) are obvious and unavoidable. A great deal of research into these experiences has been conducted by respected members of the scientific and academic communities. To date the findings definitely indicate the veracity of witnesses reporting these occurrences. Although this type of evidence is considered apparent rather than manifest, it cannot be ignored.
Those who deny the existence of an afterlife explain the “Near Death Experiences” as mere hallucinations, produced by the process of dying. With the cessation of respiration and circulation, oxygen deprivation affects the brain. The centers of the brain that govern our visual and spatial relationships are excited by the final release of electrical activity in the brain. As this occurs we experience intense sensations of light and exaggerated perceptions of space and time. Our brains interpret these distorted perceptions as being bathed in light, infinite, and eternal. Accompanying this “vision” or “hallucination” we also experience a final powerful release of emotions often perceived as an incredible sense of wellbeing or peace.
If one agrees that these are the facts, facts being our best evidence at this time. If one does agree that the situation is pretty much as it has been described herein, then all that is left is to understand the implications. What has for so long seemed to be an argument between science and religion, need not be the case. Science has established what the prophets have for so long promised. At the moment of death there awaits an experience of exceeding peace and bliss with a sense of light, infinite, and eternal. Although many rationally or scientifically minded people have referred to these reported experiences as “mere” hallucinations, they are quite simply missing the point. If this experience is truly concomitant with death then why describe something so awesome as “merely”, or as a “hallucination” and therefore somehow invalid. Ask yourself, “How could one ever truly experience infinity or eternity?” Here we stand amidst the infinite, eternal universe, and try as we might we can only conceptualize the experience of infinity and eternity. The only conceivable way to experience those pinnacles of space and time would be to exercise every neuron, allotted to those functions, of our sensory apparatus. The brain. This is basically what science describes as happening to those areas of the brain due to oxygen deprivation occurring at the time of death.
On the other hand… religious adherents that believe Heaven is an actual place rather than a mental state or state of being, also miss the point. After all, Jesus himself said, “Heaven is from within.” There is a philosophically intriguing relativity at play here between the scientific and religious viewpoints. Death is obviously the end. But, within that moment (objectively) there is the possibility for an experience of eternity (subjectively).
To quote William Blake:
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
and Heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.”
Now, of course nothing is ever so simple. With death there is oxygen deprivation causing the aforementioned vision of eternity, etc. The only problem is, oxygen deprivation usually causes unconsciousness and nothing else. Also, not all people revived from death report this visionary experience. What we find in these accounts of near-death-experience is a point of departure. Within these anomalies, there lies the opportunity to explore and understand our existence. To realize that there could truly be an “Eternal Reward”.
We have a vantage point unequalled in history. By realizing and defining those principals with enduring value… By comparing and contrasting these recurring assertions at common within religions, and in harmony with science, we have the opportunity to obtain a new perspective. An enhanced perspective.
Rather than answer the ancient questions, this perspective should give us the insight to open a whole new set of questions.
-What is the true nature of consciousness?
-What factors allow one to maintain consciousness during the death process?
-Why do only some people report the near death visionary experience?
-What factors do people having this experience have in common?
-Does this visionary experience occur only at death?
-Are there things we can do to affect our chances of having a similar experience?
-Are there clues to our queries in ancient religious texts?
My hope would be that by realizing their common ground and the relative truths of their polar perspectives. The sciences and religions could pursue the answers together. For too long an argument has existed between them that was not only unnecessary, but, was also an impediment to progress necessary in mankind’s endeavor to understand our existence.
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