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 given that we selectively choose evidence to reinforce what we already believe suggests otherwise (i.e., the confirmation bias).

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

Or so I like to believe... but maybe that simply ain't so!

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 or more contradictory beliefs simultaneously. 

Some followers felt betrayed and left the group. They changed their minds and walked 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 a personal end-of-the-world as I know it kind of belief. 

It seems entirely possible that eternal life exists and we may never know it. 

Curiously, 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 determinedIn 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?

As an aside, there are some that will contend that they know that life is eternal because they have experience of past lives, or have seen the light in a near-death experience or communed with someone in the great beyond. 

Such people are certain about their experience, no challenge there. But their certainty, their confidence, does not make it true. 

That our confidence is a poor measure of our actual knowledge is reflected in in the overconfidence effectthe unreliability of eye-witness testimony, and frankly, the unwillingness of those with strong, unsupportable opinions to admit uncertainty as a valid position.

To return the issue at hand, maybe there is eternal life, maybe there is not. The only defensible position is to admit that we simply do not know - and may never know!

This is skepticism. It is embracing uncertainty. It is loving the mystery. It is a powerful mind-opener, as in Descartes' method of doubt.

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.

The truth about eternal life is the quintessential question, an eternal mystery, fun to think about, but ultimately unknowable. Like all questions about what is the future, it is unknown.

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. 

The believer in eternal life can believe that life is eternal right up to the moment that it ends. In oblivion - be it sleep or death - there is no knowledge, and no sense of being wrong! While the person who does not believe in eternal life might get a wonderful surprise after death - never was a wrong so richly rewarded!

We do not know the truth about eternal life, but we do know that at least some beliefs, are formed without good justification. Maybe many.

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