“The Truth about the Evidence Concerning Immortality”

by Dennis Bradford

in intellectual well-being

[This post continues the discussion of the last one.]

What is the evidence for or against:  (i) immortality is real, (ii) it’s false that it is real, (iii) eternal life is real, and (iv) it’s false that eternal life is real?

Let’s consider immortality in this post and eternal life in the next one.

Unless there’s evidence to the contrary, it’s always rational not to believe that something is real.  By way of analogy, in our legal system, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor, not on the defendant.  In other words, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant is guilty; the defendant does not have to prove a negative, that it’s false that he or she is guilty.

When it comes to the existence or nonexistence of something, the burden of proof is always on whoever makes the positive existential claim.  If you think that yeti are real and I disagree, in order to settle the dispute I don’t have to prove that it’s false that yeti exist; rather, you have to prove that they do exist.  This is because, unless one can demonstrate a contradiction (as can sometimes be done in logic or mathematics), it’s not possible to prove a negative existential claim.

If you are inclined to disagree, try to imagine how you would prove that, say, there are no yeti.  Since, if they were real, they would be perceivable objects, you would be required to have perceptual evidence of every place in the universe at one moment.  So, it’s impossible to prove that there are no yeti!  Naturally, then, the burden of proof falls on whoever thinks there are yeti.  Without a cadaver or other good evidence to the contrary, it’s rational to think that it’s false that they exist.

The concept of evidence is the chief concept in epistemology, much as the concept of reality (existence) is the chief concept in ontology and the concept of value is the chief concept in axiology.  So, like the concepts of reality and value, it is a fundamental concept.

It’s important to distinguish the two kinds of evidence, namely, demonstrative evidence and nondemonstrative evidence.

Demonstrative evidence yields knowledge.  Strictly speaking, we know something only when it is certain.  Butchvarov argues that knowledge is the unthinkability of mistake (see his THE CONCEPT OF KNOWLEDGE).  We know something if and only if we cannot even think of how we could be mistaken about it.  The domain of knowledge is limited; we can know some necessary (analytic) truths (for example, “red is a color” or “three is less than four”) and some truths about immediate experience (for example, “I have a headache”).  There’s no such thing as false knowledge.

All our other beliefs are in the domain of opinion.  Whereas there’s no such thing as false knowledge, there can be false opinion.  The evidence in favor of any opinion is nondemonstrative.  What is nondemonstrative evidence?  I don ‘t know.  Nobody else does either.  The chief problem in epistemology is figuring out what it is.  How can we tell the difference between a true opinion and a false one?  That’s a difficult nut to crack.

So it might seem, then, that either proposition about immortality is an opinion.  Not!

Here’s why.  Propositions must be intelligible to be true or false.  I don’t think that propositions about immortality are intelligible!  If so, they are neither true nor false.

What is it that is supposed to have immortal life?  What is it that is supposed to continue living beyond death?  Which subject is supposed to have immortality?

I have no idea.  At least for me, at this point the discussion loses sense!  I’m not bright enough to figure out what a nonbodily “soul” could be.  Though you may have one or believe you have one, I assure you that I am empty of such an entity.  I feel like someone born blind must feel when others are discussing colors.  I just don’t get it.  After a short while, I simply lose interest.

Notice, for example, that such a nonbodily soul could not be a something that perceives.  Therefore, too, it could not be something that imagines.  What would it do?  How could it be singled out (identified)?  There’s a good slogan in ontology:  “no entity without identity.”  Well, here, at least for me, there’s no identity and no entity.

Therefore, propositions about personal immortality are unintelligible and, so, neither true nor false.  Talk about them should be dismissed as something like confused wishful thinking.

As a matter of fact, and here’s the real stunner, propositions about separate persons are unintelligible and, so, neither truth nor false!  I intend to discuss this very important point in other posts.

In my next post I’ll discuss the evidence concerning eternal life.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ranjan Kumar Roy August 15, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Truth is immortal which come from thought therefore evidence is belief

carlo May 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Much too fast in dismissing soul-entities!
The empirical evidence for out-of-body states is not negligible. Reports of these by well-balanced people abound. Just look at the near-death-experience literature.
It is true that what the disembodied self/soul/stuff is remains a mystery (other than its having to have some kind of subjectivity… and hence some point-of-view… and hence some sense-like powers).
But simply because we have a tough time understanding the metaphysics involved here, does not mean we can reject the interesting anecdotal (massive) data in this area.

BigTuna August 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Good post. I don’t know what a soul is either or how to define God. Hume is the only philosopher’s work whom I’m vaguely familiar with (besides Dr. Bradford’s). It is difficult to find fault in Hume’s work. I’m sure smarter people then me have tried! I think Hume dispensed with all of the classical arguments for the existence of God and concluded that there is no way to know if God exists or doesn’t exist. I would have to agree with Hume. Near death experiences do not appear to be adequate evidence for the existence for anything. How often do we see things that are not real? All the time. If someone suffers a traumatic event and sees something that doesn’t mean what they saw or think they saw is real. I occasionally have nightmares. Are my nightmares real? Of course not.

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