04 February 2018

The truth about eternal life is... we don't know!

We like to believe that our beliefs come from good solid reasons. 

But the evidence suggests otherwise (e.g., confirmation bias).

It seems almost certainly the case that beliefs are formed first, and then we search for reasons to support our beliefs.

We only question our beliefs when evidence comes up to suggest it just ain't so. 

Or so I believe... maybe I'm wrong!

And curiously, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence, the human mind remains remarkably resistant to doubt.

Consider Leon Festinger's fascinating work on a group who believed that the world would end on December 21, 1954. How would they deal with the evidence that their predictions of the date were wrong - assuming they were wrong?

Well, evidently they were wrong. Today is 2018 and we're still going.

So how did the believers deal with their cognitive dissonance which is holding two more more contradictory beliefs simultaneously: 'The world will end on December 21, 1954 and today is later than that date!' 

Some followers felt betrayed and left. The violated belief led them to quit and walk away.

But the more interesting cases are those who remained attached to the doomsday cult. How did they cope? They simply reset judgment day for a later date. 

Rather more interestingly, they strengthened their beliefs! They became more confident that the world would end on the new date.


End-of-the-world cults are fascinating because they might be true, and yet we can never know. If the world ends, they presumably don't even get a chance to say to the non-believers: "Ya see, I told you, but you wouldn't listen, would you?"

Take eternal life (or reincarnation which is really simply another form of the same) as an example. 

It seems entirely possible that eternal life exists and we may never know it. For instance, if there is eternal life, then we are already in it! Eternal life doesn't begin after this life, it already is. Death is merely a stage in eternal life. 

In Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., death is the point where the form "you" will take in your next life is determined

In the Abrahamic religions, death is the point which decides whether "you" will go to heaven or hell - both typically conceived of as being eternal. 

But do we learn, do we come to know, can we ever "know", that we have eternal life?

It seems entirely possible that eternal life does not exist and we will never know that either.

Take someone who believes we have eternal life (whether in this life, or in the next one). 

How do we know that life (meaning our own personal, subjective life) is in fact eternal? The believer in eternal life could believe that life is eternal right up to the moment that it ends. In oblivion - be it sleep or death - there is no knowledge.

In my view, the question of whether there is eternal life is the quintessential eternal question. It can never be resolved. And that is because it refers to the future, and the future is - as ever - unknown. 

We can believe whatever we want, but we seem manifestly unable to marshall compelling evidence for or against the eternity of life. Ironically then, we can never "know" whether our subjective life is forever.

An eternal mystery, fun to think about, but ultimately unknowable. And yet we learn something about belief. We can believe something without knowing it to be true. We can believe it even if it is in fact unknowable - as in eternal life.  At last some beliefs then, are formed without justification. Maybe many.

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